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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Charlotte Bronte’s dress!

In antiques, art, books, culture, History, life, women, work on December 2, 2016 at 12:19 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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She was tiny: 4 foot, nine inches, with (when corseted) an 18.5 inch waist.

The dress, white with small blue flowers and a brown velvet collar, stood in a display case with her shoes.

Few items I’ve ever seen in a museum struck me so powerfully as seeing a dress worn by a woman, a fellow author, and a woman who broke every convention of her era — the author of the novel Jane Eyre — and who died at 39 after only nine months of marriage.

The exhibition — which includes her marriage certificate, will and many letters, is on at the Morgan Library, on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, until January 2. If you have a chance, go!

The show fills one room, the walls painted a deep turquoise, with some of her quotations painted on it. It’s small, intimate, deeply personal. Like the best shows of their kind, you come away deeply moved by the artifacts and the life story they tell.

Her determination, in the face of overwhelming odds, resonates with any woman anywhere who feels compelled to write — and to be published — to find a receptive audience for her ideas, no matter how chilly the prospects.

Charlotte and her sisters and brother published their poems and stories under pseudonyms, as no woman of the time could be believed as a legitimate author.

There are tiny, tiny books, the writing illegibly small, she produced as a teenager; the museum, thoughtfully, has magnifying glasses available so you can read them.

(I went to the show with a friend, a fellow woman writer and author. We marveled, gratefully, at the enduring physicality of these precious items, the spidery handwriting, the delicate folds of paper. What, if anything, of the 21st century will survive — a pile of pixels? A stack of printed-out tweets and emails?)

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Her writing desk is modest; she was a clergyman’s daughter living in Yorkshire, not a wealthy woman, not someone with access and power and acres of self-esteem.

Many editions of her work carry a copy of her pastel portrait; shown here for the first time in North America. Also a first, a portrait of Charlotte and her siblings, rough and crude, deeply crackled and bent from being folded and stored for many years before being re-discovered.

Perhaps my favorite item of all is the letter sent from her friend living in New Zealand, exclaiming with delight that Bronte has actually produced a book.

Every writer, everywhere, needs a loving, encouraging friend to cheer loudly and ferociously, when they finally achieve their dream.

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Truth matters more than ever now

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, news, Uncategorized on November 27, 2016 at 6:35 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s hard to express how horrified I was by this NPR interview with a happy and wealthy — and unapologetic — producer of fake news.

He makes shit up and earns $30,000 a month from it.

Here’s more.

Just give that thought a few minutes.

It makes my head spin and turns my stomach with rage and frustration.

You step into an aircraft — and assume that its pilots are well-trained, well-rested and sober, that the maintenance crew has been diligent and attentive.

You consume a meal at a restaurant — confident that your food is free of rodent droppings or chemicals.

How to slow or halt the production line of massively lucrative “fake news” sites?

As someone who chose journalism as her profession at 19, married to a photojournalist who did the same, this is no abstract issue to us.

It is absolutely foundational to my belief system and everyone who studies, teaches and works within fact-based journalism.

Some of its most basic tenets:

You talk to real people — and verify their identities.

You review long, tedious complicated documents, whether court records, committee proceedings, internal reports, and make sense of them for your audience, who need and deserve clear, cogent summaries of what we find. Jargon and obfuscation are efficient ways to hide all kinds of abuse. Our job is to find it and expose it.

You get yelled at, threatened with lawsuits by people with wealth, power and $1,000/hour lawyers at their beck and call…and you keep digging.

You go in person, regardless of comfort, weather or fear, to scenes of natural disaster and political upheaval — whether Venezuelans fleeing a country in meltdown or those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Contrary to all economic logic, your goal is not to rake in huge piles of cash pumping out falsity — but to uncover, analyze and explain a complex and confusing world to those who share it with us, no matter their age, income level or race. At its idealistic best, it is inherently democratic.

Back to fake news for a moment.

Let’s start with the ethical quicksand of lying for living.

Let’s move on to the gullibility/laziness of the people consuming this toxic bullshit and thinking it’s true.

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Then let’s pause to consider that some of the most reliable (yes, they’re biased, I get that) news organizations are cutting back their staff — outlets like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. 

Every passing year means losses in advertising income and a shift to consuming news in digital form.

I’ve written for both papers, (and many others), and easily acknowledge that both have tremendous weaknesses as well as strengths.

But the bottom line of journalism  is this: if what you are telling your audience is untrue, you are not a journalist.

 

You are, moreover, destroying whatever shreds of faith remain in what we do produce.

If you read/watch/listen to “fake news” and take it to be truthful, you’re making economic, social, professional and personal decisions based on lies.

Maybe it affected your vote.

Maybe you didn’t even bother to ask if the source of your “news” is legitimate.

A recent study of 7,800 students, asking them to discern real news from fake, found that 80 to 90 percent could not.

 

Here’s one quick clue…look for the name of the writer. Then Google them. Look for their LinkedIn profile, website, blog, resume.

Dig, dammit!

Real journalists have public, provable, verifiable track records of accuracy. We’re not that difficult to find.

This trend is Orwellian, Huxley-esque.

In an era of stunning, growing income inequality, as utterly unqualified billionaires are soon to make up the Cabinet of the United States, it’s a matter of the deepest urgency that Americans know what is going on.

The rise of “fake news” is coinciding with a sharp drop in pay for writers like myself, pushing the most desperate into 17-hour days and seven day weeks, into cranking out…lots of words.

Are they accurate?

Deeply sourced?

Reported firsthand?

Probably not.

Every time you swallow another fake news story — and compulsively share it on social media — you enrich a liar, an immoral charlatan delighted to make rubes of everyone within reach.

The most recent story I produced for The New York Times took weeks of digging and reporting, fact-checking and review — it went through 12 versions before appearing for public consumption.

The reason it took so long? It was reviewed by multiple editors, male and female, asking me more and more questions, challenging me repeatedly to check my facts and my assumptions, to review my choice of language and tone.

If I got something wrong, (real journalists’ worst nightmare), it would be hastily corrected — with a public, permanent note to let readers know that.

That’s journalism.

The payment? Nowhere near what you might think or expect.

So why bother?

Pride of craft.

Because truth matters.

Now more than ever.

You gotta have a posse!

In behavior, business, journalism, work on October 26, 2016 at 1:12 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

It started — of course — as a term in medieval Latin; posse meaning power.

Today, it’s a group of people, more commonly, you can turn to for help and aid, people who literally have your back.

In the military, there’s a great expression — “I’ve got your six” — from fighter pilots who had a fellow flyer behind them.

I’ve been working alone from home since 2006, and have done it many times in my career. It can be lonely! It can feel isolating!

There are days when the millions of us working independently think — HELP!

Which is why, more than ever, you gotta have a posse!

They’re not fighter pilots, nor do they wear spurs and Stetsons, but they’re people I like, trust and admire, people I turn to for all sorts of advice — how to find a mortgage broker, what to charge for a seminar, how to wrangle a testy editor two years out of college.

They call me, too. I had a long phone conversation yesterday with a younger colleague as she drove from Alabama to Tennessee. We met earlier this year at a writers’ conference and immediately liked one another, sitting in the bar for hours.

Today I’ll be Skyping with another posse member who lives an ocean away.

I find it, literally, heartening and encouraging to hear how others are doing, helping one another through our inevitable ups and downs. Those of us who work without any safety net, (unemployment insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation days, a company-matched retirement plan), really need one another’s wisdom and insights.

 

My posse — and I as one of theirs — is global, thanks to social media.

 

But the essential elements remain timeless. You only want people you trust absolutely, who are discreet and smart. They can be decades younger or older. They can, (and often should), be someone from a very different background or industry.

Fresh eyes. Fresh insights.

When you don’t work in an office or belong to an organization, with coworkers, managers, HR and set policies, (no matter how frustrating they can be sometimes), figuring it out is all up to you.

 

When you work independently, you’re the cook, janitor, CIO, CFO, CMO and CEO, switching roles constantly.

 

When you work alone, it’s even more essential to know what’s going on in your industry — how to read (and alter!) a lousy contract, how to negotiate rates, what others are being paid, which deadbeat clients to avoid.

Much is being written about the “gig economy” (a phrase that makes me crazy every time I read it) — but very little about how difficult it is to do everything by yourself.

Sometimes you just need a smart, tough brain to bang up against, to test out a theory or see if you’re really brilliant this time, or heading off a potential cliff.

I enjoy my autonomy but there’s still a lot I don’t know and a lot I can help my peers with.

Do you have a posse?

Does it help?

How “news” happens: my latest NYT piece

In behavior, blogging, books, culture, journalism, life, Media, urban life on October 8, 2016 at 3:25 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

You pick up the newspaper, or a magazine, or you may just scan something on your phone.

No matter what the story is, it came from somewhere!

 

Some come from writers’ own observations, (like my New York Times’ piece on turbulence, which I pitched after noticing reports of three scary in-flight events in fairly quick succession, and knowing that many other travelers, like me, loathe turbulence.)

Some are suggested by a writer’s sources or family or friends.

It can be something we overheard or saw.

Then there’s every reporter’s dream (and one that happened to me when I was a reporter at the Globe & Mail) — getting a confidential document sent to you in a brown envelope.

That’s how The New York Times got wind of Trump’s federal income tax shenanigans, as reporter Susanne Craig described:

Friday, Sept. 23, was different.

I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.

I have been on the hunt for Donald J. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has broken with decades-long tradition and refused to make his returns public. I have written extensively about his finances, but like almost every other reporter, I was eager to see his actual returns.

The envelope looked legitimate. I opened it, anxiously, and was astonished.

Inside were what appeared to be pages from Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records, containing detailed figures that revealed his tax strategies.

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One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

What makes something a “story”?

— it’s new

— it’s making a ton of money for someone

— it’s the first time this event has ever happened

— it’s affecting thousands, if not millions, of people (often voters)

— wealthy/powerful people (aka “celebrities”) are doing it

— it’s happened near the story’s audience

I’ve spent weeks on this new New York Times Arts & Leisure story, told to me last spring by  an editor I’ve known for many years and have written for, about someone she knows.

It’s a profile of Jennifer Diaz, a young New York woman whose promotion after 15 years’ hard physical labor (and calm demeanor!) helped her make stage management history:

Now, at 34, she has made history, becoming the first female head carpenter of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The local’s 3,351 members work in spaces from the Met to Carnegie Hall, at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, and in every Broadway theater — including the Walter Kerr, which is where she was one morning in September, overseeing the load-in for the musical “Falsettos.”

With a head of thick dark curls and a ready smile, Ms. Diaz is a self-described tomboy, a blend of low-key authority and quiet confidence. “My name has a lot of clout in this business,” she said. “I have people on my side and in my pocket I can turn to.”

She works in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and sturdy sneakers, a delicate silver necklace barely visible. Married to a fellow Local 1 stagehand, she sports a tattooed wedding ring in place of a traditional metal band, the palm-side of her ring finger worn clean from years of ungloved manual labor.

My former editor messaged me on Facebook to tell me about her, and I started sending emails and making calls.

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Key to this piece? Serendipity!

I met two total strangers who helped me understand this industry, one of whom gave me an essential source.

In New York City, a city of 8.4 million.

The odds I would meet two people I needed most exactly when I needed them most?

The first guy sat beside me in the 3-chair hair salon I go to in the West Village. The other was a guy who sat beside me while eating lunch on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; working in the same industry I was covering, he gave me the phone number of someone I would never have found on my own.

It was a real pleasure to meet Jen and to get a glimpse of backstage life.

I’ll never see a Broadway show quite the same way again!

My NYC writing life — update

In journalism on August 25, 2016 at 3:41 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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As many of you know, I earn my living writing journalism for places like The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters Money and many others. My most recent quick hit was about a new luxury hotel in Mexico for a design trade magazine.

In June, I participated in a National Press Foundation fellowship on retirement, and its many challenges: physical, financial, emotional. We had 19 (!) speakers in three days, so I’m still processing it all.

I’m a generalist, and write about almost everything, (not science, tech, parenting, beauty.)

If you need help with a writing or editing project or can refer me to someone who does, let me know!

I’ve also worked with the Consulate General of Canada, the New York School of Interior Design and WaterAid America to craft their messages.

This week has been crazy; for a story, I spent a day in Manhattan visiting the new Westfield mall next to the 9/11 memorial, interviewing a few shoppers — including, in French, a couple visiting from Brittany.

I hadn’t been down there since 9/11 and I deliberately avoided even looking at the memorial. I know some tourists love it, but the memories are, even, 15 years later, too painful and weird to re-live.

Using  a cane right now for balance, (my right knee has bad arthritis), slowed me way down but I hopped a city bus and headed back uptown to 48th Street to meet and interview a young woman for a Times piece.

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The range of shawls, sweaters, caps — in the most gorgeous colors! These are shawls in Avoca, a Dublin shop

My latest venture is a retail/shopping blog at Forbes, which pays a small monthly stipend (welcome to digital journalism) — plus payment for each view.

I hope some of you will make the trip over to check it out and, if you like it, Facebook and tweet it.

I’ll be writing five posts a month.

A reminder that I also teach and coach fellow bloggers and writers, and have done so with people worldwide, from Singapore to New Zealand to Germany to Maryland, often via Skype.

I charge $225/hour, (payable though PayPal), with a one-hour minimum and my time and skills are yours; you can ask me for whatever help you need: reading a pitch, reading a story draft, advice on blogging, how to sell a non-fiction book…been there, done that!

I also offer specific, highly-focused webinars, $150 for 90 minutes. scheduled at your convenience and done one-on-one via Skype, phone or in person.

I’m the winner of a National Magazine Award for a personal essay about my divorce and have written two books of national reporting and analysis published by major New York houses.

A former reporter for three major dailies, I can also help you figure out where and how to dig up information or conduct a useful, incisive interview. Let alone how to write more, better and faster!

I know this writing game inside out, from negotiating fees to wrangling (whew!) PR people determined to control every single word.

 

Thanks for reading, commenting — and returning to Broadside!

Those #firstsevenjobs — yours?

In behavior, business, journalism, life, Money, work on August 18, 2016 at 12:20 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Off on the train, hi-ho…

 

A little late to this party, but those of you on Twitter might have seen this popular hashtag, where people share their first seven jobs.

It’s been really interesting to see all the odd and unlikely things people do to earn money…tank driver, fishmonger, clown, pipeline surveyor, funeral musician.

It was also interesting to see how many of the jobs were fairly low-level/low-wage until people hit a well-paid professional career, and it seemed like a longer, slower trajectory for the Americans who tweeted, maybe because so many go on to graduate school, maybe because some just didn’t need — or couldn’t get — a better position sooner.

 

Here are the first seven ways I tried to make money, (and you’ll quickly see a pattern!):

 

  • Made and sold home-made bead necklaces on a street corner in a chi-chi shopping area of Toronto. I was 12.
  • Made and sold home-made envelopes (magazine pages, with an address label). I was 15.
  • Lifeguard at various Toronto swimming pools, public and private. Ages 15 to 18.
  • Waitress (very briefly!)
  • Busgirl (even worse)
  • Sold my photos on the street. Age 19
  • Sold my articles to national magazines and newspaper. Age 19.

 

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One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

 

I soon learned that:

 

  • I like to sell
  • I like to talking to strangers
  • I’m not scared of selling or of speaking to strangers
  • I like seeing how people respond to my creativity
  • I like it even more when they pay me for it!
  • Lifeguarding is really, really, really, boring — until or unless (which never happened) someone is in serious trouble
  • Waitressing and bussing tables demands huge physical stamina, patience and a shit-ton of emotional labor
  • I prefer being paid to challenge and question authority (journalism) than kow-towing to bosses and customers (service work)

 

The world of work can appear terrifying, impenetrable, overwhelming. No matter how hard you work or whatever degree(s) you earn or your stellar marks/GPA, you can still hit a wall, or many.

There are many people out there insisting you follow your passion, without regard to — you know, money.

Just because you like making cupcakes/walking your dog/playing the banjo doesn’t mean you can earn a decent living from it.

The challenge for everyone, from first job to last, is finding steady work we enjoy, (at least much of the time), and that uses our skills and emotional intelligence.

Working for income is such a potent blend of drive, determination, talent, sheer get-this-shit-done-now, emotional labor, (i.e. sucking up, being nice to people even when — especially when — you’re being badly paid and treated like crap, as in retail and foodservice), management draaaaaaamas, finding smart/kind (if you’re lucky) co-workers, bosses and clients…

A job can look perfect on paper and then you start and….ohhhhh, shit…It’s not.

Or, yay! It really is.

I’ve spent much of my career as a journalist working freelance, i.e. without any paid sick days or paid vacation, without a boss or co-workers or raises or promotions or bonuses or commission. Whatever I earn has to come through my efforts and skills, and, when it works, the generosity of my networks who refer me on to their contacts.

Some years have been terrific, others much less so.

I do enjoy working in/with/on a team, as one does in a newsroom or magazine. I enjoy, and I miss, the camaraderie and the mix of smarts and energy.

But I also treasure autonomy, being able to plan and manage my own time, (and time off — Americans with staff jobs are terrified to ask for or use their skimpy vacation days) –and to pick and choose work that makes sense to me, intellectually if not always financially.

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My second book, published in 2011

I’ve had three well-paid staff jobs at major daily newspapers, in Toronto at the Globe and Mail, (Canada’s best), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.

I loved the first, enjoyed aspects of the second and barely survived the third; daily American newspapers, now struggling mightily and shedding staff like autumn leaves, are highly specific cultures, some welcoming, some less so.

I’ve also worked as a senior editor and editor in chief of a few magazines, work I enjoyed less, as it was totally desk-bound.

 

What were some of your first jobs — and what did they teach you?

 

Blog friends

In behavior, blogging, journalism, life on August 15, 2016 at 1:07 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Where will that path take us?

 

I know that many of you also blog, and (happy sixth anniversary, Lorna!) have been doing it for years.

I had the oh, so snottily New York Timesian — “Oh, do people blog anymore?” asked of me at Jose’s going-away party last year (while snarfing the cake I paid for.)

Apparently, yes.

I write for a living, and have been doing so for (gulp) 40 years, since I was an undergrad at the University of Toronto, utterly desperate to (as I did) become a journalist.

No Internet then.

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Fishing lines at rest, Burtonport, Co. Donegal

People ask me: if you’re a professional writer, why on earth would you write unpaid, i.e. blog?

For pleasure.

For connection.

For exploring ideas.

For a place to muse aloud.

For a space in which to chew ideas.

For civil conversation with smart, interesting people across the globe.

For writing that isn’t, for once, tailored to someone else’s tone, length and subject matter.

For friendship.

That wasn’t, of course, the original plan.

But then Lorna and Sarge (now — yay! — her husband, and proud parents of the gorgeous girl Isla) came to New York, and I’d been reading her blog and she’d been reading mine and it was as if we’d been friends for years through our words flung out there so hopefully into the ether.

She in Scotland, I in suburban New York.

Like many of my new blog friends, we’re also decades apart in age, but perhaps not in sensibility — our shared love of books and travel and ideas and wonder at the world.

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A time for adventures — meeting Mallory

When I went back to Paris, in December 2015, I was thrilled to meet Mallory and Juliet and Catherine and others who were readers of my blog.

I met them in public places, thinking — This is nuts! What if she doesn’t show up? What if she’s an axe murderer? (Sadly, now, more of a worry than it was then.) No doubt, they, too had their fears.

Then off we went and, every time without fail, had a lovely face to face experience.

Juliet and I — both long-time ex-pat Torontonians (she in France, I in the United States) — had a wild New Year’s Eve together, that began with vintage shopping (what else?) and a terrific dinner eaten at the bar.

Mallory and I had so much fun we met twice.

I had never met any of these people before.

They had never met me.

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London –land of Small Dog Syndrome!

But we all took a leap of faith and, voila, fun!

This week I met yet another smart, savvy, worldly young woman, the legendary X who’s the bestie of Cadence, the author of Small Dog Syndrome from London; she and I finally met face to face — after years of mutual admiration — in the train station after I got off the train from Paris in my brown vintage fedora.

We talked for so long her husband called to make sure we were OK.

X was everything you’d expect of a friend of Cadence and we sat at the bar and drank cold beer and shared notes on life in journalism in New York City. I would never have met her had I not read Cadence, nor emailed her privately, nor (!) stayed with her in their London flat (sleeping on an air mattress on the living room floor) and we all survived.

What a gift this blog has brought into my life!

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The gift of friendship.

How has blogging (has it?) affected your life?

Seven years of Broadside…

In blogging on July 16, 2016 at 2:12 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

It started on July 1, 2009 — Canada Day.

It started on the firm orders of my then-agent, who insisted (eye-roll, sigh, must I?) I had to have a blog, and social media following for my second book, which she sold on 9/11/2009.

It came out in April 2011, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio), a memoir of low-wage wage and a work of national reporting on the industry.

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Unlike many of you, I had never wanted to blog and couldn’t imagine that anyone would hang around, read and comment, let alone return.

Happily, I was wrong, and Broadside continues to attract new followers every day, now more than 16,000 worldwide.

The blog now also has 1,845 published posts, on everything from travel to journalism to politics to decorating.

Yes, my interests are eclectic!

It’s also been very odd, and instructive, to see which posts — many years later — still attract the most views: my 30-hour train ride from New York to Minneapolis, meeting Queen Elizabeth, what going to boarding school very young does to your psyche…(I went age eight.)

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New York — where I’ve lived since 1989 — and written many blog posts about

That boarding school post has gotten more than (!) 11,000 views over the years and has  elicited the most heartfelt, confessional replies, some so heartbreaking they were difficult to read.

One man — the only time that’s ever happened here — wrote to me the next day, apologetically, and asked me (which I did) to take down his comments, so personal had they been.

 

At their best, blogs link us, heart to heart.

 

Like every blogger, I never know what posts will resonate and which will sit there, largely unloved, unread and un-liked. I’m often surprised by what you like most, so that keeps me on my toes.

 

I’m grateful for your attention!

 

I love the new friendships that blogging has created — some, now face-to-face, like Juliet in Paris, Cadence in London, Katie in New York — and some, still on-line only, with faithful readers like Rami, Leah, Steve, Kate Katharina, Ashok, Lynette, Charlene, Ksbeth, Leslie, David Kanigan…

Since college, I’ve been paid to write for a living, with work published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Salon, Smithsonian, Marie Claire and many more.

I sometimes feel like a cow attached to a milking machine, the computer extracting every possible idea for compensation.

So why write unpaid?

Pleasure!

Connection!

Lively conversations!

Seven years seems like a crazy-long time to keep banging out blog posts, but I still really enjoy it and, it seems (yay!) some of you do as well.

Broadside is a rare and special place for me as a writer — a public space where I muse, question, challenge, reflect, and can share more personal and intimate notions than any commercial outlet is likely to pay me for.

It’s a place to collect and hear your thoughts and ideas, and sometimes listen to/enjoy several of you conversing.

It’s a very small — albeit global — cocktail party!

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Here’s a selection from the archives I hope you’ll enjoy:

 

Why we’re all works in progress

Why I don’t celebrate Mother’s Day

Why being “productive” is a waste of time

Why every young job-seeker should watch “The Devil Wears Prada”

Cotton years, cashmere years — what freelance life is really like

Twelve things you should never say to a writer

Lessons learned working with WaterAid in Nicaragua

Moving across a border for love (and how it turned out)

 

As always…

If anyone seeks writing, blogging or editing help, you can reach me through learntowritebetter@gmail.com — I’ve coached many fellow writers via phone and Skype, and I offer individual webinars as well.

 

 

Q and A with Plum Johnson: her new memoir: “They Left Us Everything”

In aging, behavior, books, domestic life, family, life, love, women on June 30, 2016 at 1:44 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

 

AUTHOR PHOTO plum johnson

I recently read a lovely new memoir by a fellow Canadian and she was kind enough — thank you, Plum! — to agree to a question and answer interview with me for Broadside.

As regular readers here know, I love to find and feature talented writers and photographers whose work I hope will be valuable to my blog readers as well.

One great joy of the creative life is celebrating talent and sharing it.

Her book resonated strongly with me, as it’s set in the town of Oakville, near Toronto where I grew up and return often to visit.

I haven’t had to clear out a huge family home, as she did, but I totally related to much of her story. It’s fun, funny, poignant.

Certainly anyone faced with the daunting and often emotionally overwhelming challenge of sorting through decades of their parents’ belongings, let alone selling the family home, with all its attendant memories, will enjoy her book.

I also love that one of Plum’s role models for memoir is one of my favorite writers, Alexandra Fuller, a British woman (now living in the U.S.) whose two memoirs of growing up in Zimbabwe were best-sellers. When I teach writing, I always use some passages from her books.

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The book’s Canadian cover

 

Tell us a bit about yourself…

My first book, (written when I was five), was called ‘The Mouse and the Hat.’ My mother saved it and it surfaced when I was clearing out her house. Writing came easily to me, but Dad said, “Life isn’t meant to be easy!” So I figured I should do something harder. Many of us ignore out childhood passions, don’t you think?

When I was six years old, a friend of my mother’s published a satirical romantic novel in which the feisty heroine was loosely based on Mum. That book sat on a shelf in my bedroom for years. Each night I’d stare at it, secretly dreaming that one day my own name might replace the author’s on the spine. I’m sure a therapist could infer all sorts of things from that early obsession, but I still treasure that book. It reminds me that my dream was there from childhood.

After college, I taught high school for a year and then switched to advertising. I got a job as a copywriter for Sears – in their catalog division. It was wonderful training! Copywriters spend all their time ‘killing their darlings’ – madly cutting until their copy achieves pure essence, using as few words as possible.

 When did the idea for this book come to you?

The light-bulb moment came when I was taking Mum’s stuff to the thrift store. I noticed three things: the store was piled high with identical stuff from the fifties; adult children were dropping it off by the truckload in a big hurry; and it had all lost its value – nobody wanted it.

I stood back and thought, Wow – look at this big picture!

 

Why isn’t anybody writing about this? I wonder if there’s a book here?

 

What did your agent think of it initially? Was it an easy sale, as there are so many memoirs now?

Memoirs used to be a hard sell, but I think that’s changing – especially with the success years ago of The Glass Castle. The popularity of reality TV has changed readers’ appetites.

 

We’ve become a nation of voyeurs

 

If ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ why read a novel? My original pitch was that I’d write a “Goodnight Moon” for adults. (It’s got good “buzz” – right?) My agent liked the idea. I planned a lighthearted book about “saying goodbye to stuff.” But the more I wrote, the more the book changed. Suddenly the “old lady whispering hush” emerged: a strong mother-daughter theme that caused me to look deeper.

 

 

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The American cover

 

Did you have any concerns (as many people do when writing about their family)?

 

Sure. When I began looking deeper I was terrified. Not terrified of what my family would think, but what readers might think once the book was published. I was confessing so many private thoughts about my relationship with Mum – and I wasn’t proud of them.

 

Did you have any role model/memoirs whose tone or structure inspired yours?

 

I’ve always loved reading memoir, so I have lots of favorite books. I was reading Rick Bragg’s memoir about his mother, All Over but the Shoutin’, Susan Cheever’s Treetops, Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and also rereading essays by Nora Ephron.

 

How did you structure the book and why?

 

My first attempt was strictly chronological. I happen to like chronological order – it’s a pure form and leaves no place to hide. But as different readers and editors offered opinions, the structure began to change.

One reader had marked a big red arrow about twenty pages in with the words: YOUR BOOK STARTS HERE.

 

Then my agent (who also happens to be a great editor) took all the chapters, shuffled them like a deck of cards, handed them back, and said, “What about this?”

 

We lived with that for a while until, at the eleventh hour, another editor gave me a thoughtful ten-page critique that was exactly right. It was like eureka! I spent a frenzied weekend putting yellow sticky notes all over my kitchen wall and changing the order of a few key things.

 

What was most challenging about writing it?

 

The editing of any book is the hardest part, but also the most satisfying. It took me about nine months to write and almost two years to edit. Of course, now I can’t remember what we left in or what got cut.

 

The most fun?

 

Trying to find my book in the bookstores. It was usually shelved under “Grief and Bereavement.” I had no idea it was about grieving.

 

Did you take notes as you were emptying the house or did you have to rely on memory?

 

Yes – notes! Remember – I was living in Mum’s house for more than a year. I knew very few people in town, so I had no social life.

After sorting all day, I’d collapse into bed and write down memories triggered by the things I was finding

 

Memories were in no particular order. Just a jumble of thoughts. But I ended up with a collection of “scenes” that I used later in my manuscript.

 

Any reaction from your family?

 

My family read the manuscript before it ever went to a publisher. I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice any relationships, so I promised to remove anything they found hurtful. Thankfully, nothing got removed – except later by the editors!

 

What sorts of emails/reaction have you gotten from readers — it’s so much a generational rite of passage for so many people now!

 

That’s the thing about memoir: you think you’re writing about your own life but it turns out you’re writing about everyone else’s as well.

 

We all have so much in common

 

I wish I could thank the stranger who came up to me outside an elevator shortly after my book came out. She recognized me from the book jacket and did a double-take. “Are you Plum Johnson?” she said. I started backing away, thinking: uh-oh, here comes the criticism. “May I give you a hug?” she said. “Because I had a mother just like yours!”

 

 

 

Real journalism still matters — and it costs

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, news, television, work, world on June 7, 2016 at 2:01 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

It costs lives.

This week, once more, journalists across the world are mourning the deaths of two more tribe members, David Gilkey, a photographer for National Public Radio (and a veteran of several U.S.newspapers) and his interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna.

The two men, travelling in a convoy with other NPR staff, were killed in Afghanistan on assignment when their Humvee was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.

To most people beyond professional journalism, it’s just another story flashing by in your Twitter feed or something glimpsed, possibly, on Facebook.

I listened yesterday to the heartfelt tributes on National Public Radio by Jason Beaubien and Kelly McEvers, who worked closely with Gilkey; McEvers, who worked for many years in the MidEast, could barely choke out a sentence.

It takes tremendous courage to step into the theater of war to cover it as a journalist, (and, as Gilkey also frequently did, starting in 2007 for NPR, to record the aftermath of natural disasters in places like Haiti and the Philippines) — to pick up a camera or microphone and start gathering facts to share with the rest of us, sitting safely and calmly at home on our balcony or in our cars or on a sofa patting our dog or cuddling a child.

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The CBC’s logo — one of the many news sources I follow

These jobs — yes, chosen freely — demand sacrificing any sort of personal life, sometimes for many years.

You go, at once, where the story is, where you have to be, for as long as your editors want you there. Forget celebrating other people’s birthdays with them or anniversaries or attending their weddings or graduations or the birth of your children.

Reporters’ risk their physical and mental health, even if “only” at risk of secondary trauma, a very real effect of witnessing death, violence and destruction firsthand.

 

There’s no other way to tell these stories well.

 

Like PTSD, secondary trauma leaves scars for years, and it often goes unnamed, unrecognized and untreated, because admitting it to yourself — or your colleagues, let alone to your bosses — also means admitting you’ve got deep and complicated feelings about what you’ve witnessed and recorded and transmitted.

Feelings are something we often postpone having about tough stories.

They’re messy and can slow us down.

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I covered the unity march in Paris in January 2015 — I love breaking news!

If you can spare the time or have the interest, please take 25:03 out of your life to listen to this smart, impassioned commencement speech to the 2016 graduates from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism by Rebecca Solnit.

Here’s a print version of it.

An excerpt:

Break the story is a line journalists use to mean getting a scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance. When you report on any event, no matter how large or small—a presidential election, a school board meeting—you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened. But of course we swim in stories like fish swim in water; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermines or reinforces the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and make visible and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those dominant narratives or paradigms or memes or metaphors we live by or frameworks. However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and too often the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions. Why does the media obediently hype terrorism so much, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about 1200 a year? How do you break the story about what really threatens us and kills us?

 

I love what she says and believe wholeheartedly in her stance — that so many of the “stories” we write or broadcast are bullshit.

It also takes real professional courage to break away from the pack, to zig when everyone is zagging, and chase down a story you know is essential but that no Big Outlet has (yet) deemed important.

It’s called a press pack for a reason…

 

I hope, as you consume serious, smart  journalism today, in whatever format on whatever device — paper, phone, tablet, book — you’ll stop and say a prayer of thanks for those who have given their lives to bring it to us.