broadsideblog

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

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

 

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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.

 

 

 

The true meaning of collegiality

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, women, work on May 25, 2016 at 12:51 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Writing for a living can be lonely!

 

Many professional writers, as I do, live and/or earn our incomes in solitude, working freelance at home or in a cafe or library.

As a result, entire days, sometimes weeks, can go by without seeing another member of our industry face to face — people live far away, have long commutes or are simply too busy cranking out copy to have a long meal, or short coffee, with one another.

It’s a real loss.

 

We all need colleagues with whom to talk shop, gossip, hear about their latest project, cheer them when they win well-earned awards.

 

We need to give, and receive, fierce hugs and hear “Hey!” from across a crowded room.

And, yes, commiserate if it’s not been such a great year so far.

 

Last week reminded me how incredibly important it is so get into the same room with people whose work, and values, you like, respect, admire and hope to emulate.

 

I attended, along with 599 others, the annual meeting the of American Society of Journalists and Authors, held every spring in midtown Manhattan at the Roosevelt Hotel.

The ASJA is a member-only group, but Saturday is open to other writers at all levels; we focus on non-fiction and journalism.

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The writer and I have become Twitter friends — but have yet to meet in person. Terrific book!

After the sometimes shockingly filthy air of online-only communication — poisoned in so many groups by misunderstanding, grandstanding, rank amateurs and even bullying of those they deem unwelcome — being surrounded by smart, talented, proven professionals who actually know, like and respect one another’s work was truly a hit of pure oxygen.

The very first person I saw was a male tech writer, a friend of many years, who asked me about blogging.

Others asked how my work was going, or told me how much they enjoy my blog.

I met many new writers, and those with decades of work for every imaginable magazine, authors of multiple books, some of them New York Times best-sellers.

 

We’re all thirsty, at every level of experience, to learn more, to improve our skills.

 

On Saturday morning, I spoke on a panel with two other writers about coaching, a service I offer fellow writers. In the audience were two talented younger women I spoke to at length afterward — one from my hometown, Toronto, one from Alabama.

Here’s the full list of every panel, as they were all taped for late sale — you can order them! (Mine is S09 on May 21.)

BLOWN AWAY COVER

My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

Such a pleasure to meet new people with thriving careers!

A group of us went out for lunch — women from Austin, Texas, New York, Boston, all of whom had never met. There’s an immediate, automatic comfort among fellow writers who know the real pressures of paying the rent/mortgage/health insurance from our writing, editing and teaching.

That afternoon, as other ASJA members do every year at the conference, I also mentored a young woman from (!) Sydney Australia; we mentor writers at the conference who pay a small additional fee and can ask us anything they want about the business of writing for a living.

It really is a meeting of peers and colleagues, not just idle chitchat.

We don’t just go to exchange business cards and polite pleasantries but, in a few more intimate conversations, to dig deep into the joys and challenges of what it means to still try to produce smart, thoughtful journalism in an age of listicles and clickbait.

How and where do you find true colleagues?

Why read?

In art, beauty, behavior, blogging, books, culture, education, journalism on March 16, 2016 at 12:44 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Isn’t this cover gorgeous? I LOVED this book, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

You’re doing it this very second. (Bless you!)

We’re all so time-starved,  between school and work and kids and aging parents and illness, (ours or others’) and income (getting, keeping, investing if lucky). Oh, and TV and movies and other places on the Internet.

Some days I picture libraries and bookstores as a piteous forest, arms reaching out entreatingly — read us!

In an era of CPA, continuous partial attention, (a phrase coined in the Dark Ages, back in 1998), our undivided attention is now a rarity.

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

Each weekend, I plow through the Saturday New York Times, Sunday New York Times and the weekend Financial Times; two of these include magazines also full of content and images.

As my husband asked recently, “How many words do you think that is?”

I read them in print, as much for the pleasure of its tactility as the satisfaction of tossing all the read sections on the floor.

Done! Progress!

I also read in print as an escape from the computer screen, to which I’m attached for so many hours every day — like you, I suspect!

My eyes get tired. I want a different medium.

In addition to these, I read the NYT and FT daily and, for work and pleasure, magazines ranging from Period Home (a British shelter mag) to Wired to Bloomberg Businessweek. (My husband subscribes to photo and golf magazines and Monocle and Foreign Affairs as well.)

I make a little time to consume digital stories, and some of them are terrific, (on Medium, Narratively and others.)

I follow 905 Twitter accounts, about 85 percent of which are news sources and, when read  en masse, can be deeply disorienting and confusing — I’ll see graphic news photos of the latest MidEast terrorist bombing followed immediately by a pastel Dorset living room from a design magazine.

 

And I still make time to read books, the most recent being “Answered Prayers”, a classic by the late Truman Capote, whose desperate indiscretion destroyed his glittering career. I found it odd, bitter, not enjoyable. I’m glad I’ve read it, but what a nasty little creature he was! (This, in case you forgot, is the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, later adapted to a legendary film.)

And another American classic, the 1937 “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I put it off for ages, then couldn’t put it down: great characters and plot, written in dialect.

I never leave home, (and have done this my whole life), without a book or magazine or newspaper, and often all of these at once.

These bookshelf photos are some shelfies — what’s on our bookshelves at home here in  New York…no, I haven’t (yet!) read all of them.

 

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As author of two well-reviewed works of non-fiction — “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (2004) and “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (2011) — I also have a vested personal interest in how much readers care about books!

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My second book, published in 2011

Here’s an interesting new effort to actually figure out why people stop reading a book:

Here is how it works: the company gives free e-books to a group of readers, often before publication. Rather than asking readers to write a review, it tells them to click on a link embedded in the e-book that will upload all the information that the device has recorded. The information shows Jellybooks when people read and for how long, how far they get in a book and how quickly they read, among other details. It resembles how Amazon and Apple, by looking at data stored in e-reading devices and apps, can see how often books are opened and how far into a book readers get.

Jellybooks has run tests on nearly 200 books for seven publishers, one major American publisher, three British publishers and three German houses. Most of the publishers did not want to be identified, to avoid alarming their authors. The company typically gathers reading data from groups of 200 to 600 readers.

Mr. Rhomberg recently gave a workshop at Digital Book World, a publishing conference in New York, and some of his findings confirmed the worst fears of publishers and authors.

On average, fewer than half of the books tested were finished by a majority of readers. Most readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters. Women tend to quit after 50 to 100 pages, men after 30 to 50. Only 5 percent of the books Jellybooks tested were completed by more than 75 percent of readers. Sixty percent of books fell into a range where 25 percent to 50 percent of test readers finished them. Business books have surprisingly low completion rates.

Some of the reasons I read:

Style

What words and phrases did the writer choose? Do they work? What emotions are they eliciting in me?

Do I love their choices or am I finding them irritating and distracting? Why?

Do I wish I could write as beautifully? (Read “H is for Hawk” for some exquisite use of language.)

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Information

Forever deeply curious about the world — history, politics, economics, nature, science, belief systems, psychology, business, music, art, antiques. There’s so much I don’t know! So much I want to understand.

Writing that clearly and compellingly teaches me?  Yes, please!

New worlds

Maybe it’s ancient Egypt or Edwardian-era London or Paris in the 16th. century or a rural town populated primarily, in an era of segregation, by African-Americans. I need to visit other worlds, literally and imaginatively.

Great writing takes us there.

Escape

It’s such a joy to escape into a great piece of writing, so that when you stop reading you look up, disoriented and a bit dazed.

Where were you? Where are you now?

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Characters

Love savoring characters so real you want to have lunch with them and miss them terribly when you’re done. I still miss the cast of “The Goldfinch”, a doorstop of a book given to me for my birthday two years ago. I wonder about the residents of the Paris apartment building in “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”

I also wonder about the ongoing lives of so many of the people I read about in journalism and non-fiction, from soldiers to aid workers to choreographers

Inspiration

As someone who writes for a living, I need to read great work by other writers, whether a book review, an essay, an op-ed, a novel, even a great tweet. I want to see how other writers have chosen to structure a narrative, create suspense, choose and carry a theme, or several, to completion.

It can be non-fiction, journalism, an essay, from the 21st century or the 16th.

Artists in every genre look to the greats for inspiration. I do too.

Beauty

Jose and I have a collection of reference books — of photography, painting, decorative arts, antiques and home design. These include works on Inuit women artists, Gustav Klimt, elephants, jewelry, vintage textiles and a gorgeous two-volume Taschen collection of global interior design.

On a cold wintry afternoon, paging through these glorious images is a lovely break.

 Emotional Connection

Depending on  genre — self-help, memoir, essay, religion, philosophy — what a writer chooses to share about their life and their intimate struggles can help readers facing the same or similar challenges.

 

Are you an avid reader?

 

 

 

What lessons did your first boss teach you?

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, life, work on January 23, 2016 at 1:53 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

As a follow-up to my Devil Wears Prada post, I’ve been thinking about my first editor(s) when I started out in journalism and my first full-time-job boss and the lessons they taught me — some of which might resonate for you.

I began freelancing as a writer for national publications when I was 19, having grown up in Toronto, the center of Canadian publishing.

Eager to join the world of journalism, I immediately signed up as a reporter for the weekly campus newspaper at the University of Toronto, and started writing as much as they would let me. Within a year, I had a good pile of articles, (aka clips), to show to professional magazine and newspaper editors I hoped would pay me for them.

I first started writing for a national Canadian magazine, then called Miss Chatelaine, now called Flare.

My editor was ferocious!

Her own mother was a legendary writer and so is her younger sister. I had never formally studied journalism or writing, beyond a BA in English literature from the equally-ferocious University of Toronto.

No one in my new worlds, either college or journalism, suffered fools gladly!

My editor would circle every misplaced or misused or lazy word with a red pen — this was in the day of typewriters and paper copies.

My first few stories were an embarrassing sea of red circles.

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

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

She taught me a lesson I never forgot: to use specific verbs in the active tense.

When we spoke on the telephone, (no Internet!), and she told me what was wrong with my work, I would occasionally end up in tears.

Was it always fun? Clearly not.

Was I learning (and getting paid to do so?) Clearly so.

I could give up and walk away — or continue to learn my craft.

She and I are Facebook friends today.

My first book, published in 2004...all the skills I learned in my 20s are still in play today

My first book, published in 2004…all the skills I learned in my 20s are still in play today

My first newspaper boss was a man so shy most people thought he was cold and unfriendly but he was really someone who valued guts and intelligence.

He took the crazy risk of hiring me — although I had zero prior staff newspaper experience — to work for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s daily national newspaper.

My first day, staring up at the large overhead clock that still rules every newsroom, I thought: “Wow, they want this story….tonight.

He kept throwing me into huge, terrifying, front-page stories, from covering an election campaign in French in Quebec, (I had never covered politics, anywhere, for anyone, let alone en francais), to a two-week national tour trailing Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip from New Brunswick all the way to Manitoba.

The lizard part of my brain sent me to cry in the bathtub, scared to death I would fail every time and get fired. That was his agenda!

The rational part of my brain told me to shut up and get on with it. I was being offered tremendous opportunities to shine. The rest was up to me.

I did fine.

Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid

Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid in March 2014

I remain forever grateful to both editors for giving me amazing (scary!) chances, knowing I was still young and fairly green, knowing I might have proven a terrible disappointment. They had more confidence and faith in me than I often did.

That’s my definition of a great boss.

What did your first boss or job teach you that was most helpful?

So, what are you reading these days?

In behavior, books, culture, education, entertainment, journalism on December 30, 2015 at 2:13 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Check out this great post, by a Halifax librarian, about the 164 (!) books she read this year.

I’m the only person I know who loathed Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which she, too, adored and names in her top three favorites.

I probably shouldn’t admit this here — I’ve only read five of her 164. I, too, loved White Teeth and The Paying Guests, which I picked off a bookstore table.

There are several on her (fiction heavy!) list I’m curious about, including Yanigahara’s much-praised A Little Life.

But the vast difference between her choices and mine is also not surprising to me, because the books we choose, and love and rave to others about, are so deeply personal.

I know that some of you love (and write) horror, romance and science fiction, three genres I never touch.

I veer, always, to non-fiction, essay, memoir and biography.

Of course, being a writer, I gave and received books for the holidays this year; one of the ones I received is on the above list.

I gave my father the gorgeous new cookbook Vegetables by London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi. I gave my half-sister, an ambitious amateur writer of fiction and poetry, a book of 365 writing prompts and I gave my husband, who grew up in (and misses!) Santa Fe, New Mexico, a book about Mimbre pottery.

I dropped into a great Toronto indie bookstore, Type, and impulsively picked up three new books — one that examines the use of language in poetry (a genre, embarrassingly, I never read), a book of essays written by women who work in technology and a memoir.

I also (always a question posed with trepidation) asked if they sell my own book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” and they used to but did not re-stock it.

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011

Ouch!

The glamorous life of the writer means, unless your book was a huge best-seller, the odds of it appearing in a bookstore a few years later are slim-to-none.

I still, very gratefully, receive emails from readers for both my books and also have received a healthy check through Canada’s Public Lending Rights system — a sort of royalty paid out to writers when their books are well-read through library copies.

(Much as it’s very satisfying to know my books have sold well to libraries around the world, every borrowed book, obviously, means one less sale.)

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

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

I love to read, for all the reasons many of us do:

— to discover and enter new worlds, fictional and real

— to learn about a new part of the real world and how it works (or doesn’t)

— to better understand history

— to learn how to use and structure a compelling narrative

— to be inspired by lovely language

— to share someone’s story through memoir or biography

I grew up as an only child with little TV time, so reading was my default pleasure and source of amusement; I was reading and loving Greek myths when I was seven.

Sent to boarding school and summer camp for many years, I disappeared into books there to gain much-wanted and ever-elusive privacy and some sense of personal power.

I was in deep shit for laughing out loud reading my math textbook in supervised study hall — when inside it was Gerald Durrell’s classic My Family and Other Animals.

Before leaving for summer camp for eight weeks, I’d head to a long-gone Toronto bookstore, Albert Britnell, and choose eight yellow-covered Nancy Drew books. Every week, a fresh one would arrive in its brown padded envelope. Heaven!

Right now I’m reading John Keegan’s The First World War, which was a best-seller, and I can see why — tremendously researched but clear and detailed.

When back in New York, soon, I’ll be revising the proposal for what I hope will become my third work of nationally-reported non-fiction. But who knows? It’s difficult to sell a book proposal and there’s no guarantee.

Some of the recent books I’ve read and enjoyed, include:

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

This doorstop won her the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly. I was given this book by a friend for my birthday in June 2014 but didn’t read it until the fall of 2015 daunted by its size, that it’s fiction (which I often enjoy less than non-fiction) and what many smart friends said — it’s too long! It definitely could have used a trim at the end, but I loved it. Much of it is set in New York City, a place I know well now after living near it for decades, and she perfectly captures feelings and characters you find there.

North of Normal, Cea Sunrise Person

I’ll be offering a post soon that’s a Q and A with her; I reached out to her on Twitter to rave about it. If you’ve read and enjoyed the American best-seller The Glass Castle, this will resonate for you — a story of a little girl who survived a crazy and isolated childhood, in this case in a tipi in the woods of northern Canada. It is simply astounding to me that she survived it with such grace and lack of self-pity.

Isn't this cover gorgeous?

Isn’t this cover gorgeous?

Skyfaring, Mark Vanhoenacker

I previously blogged about this gorgeous book, written by a British Airways pilot who flies 747s across the world. If you, like me, live to travel and love the smell of JP4, jet fuel, this one’s for you. Lovely lyrical writing.

What were your favorite recent reads, old or new?

 

 

The writer’s year — life working full-time freelance

In blogging, books, business, journalism, life, work on December 22, 2015 at 2:57 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The NYC food bank -- which I saw this year while working on a story about it

The NYC food bank — which I saw this year while working on a story about it

Some of Broadside’s almost 16,000 followers are also writers.

Some wish they were.

(I used to offer here an irregular column, The Writer’s Week, but haven’t done it in a while.)

I’ve been working as a journalist for a few decades — sadly that now feels like being a polar bear on a shrinking ice floe, with fewer and fewer slabs of ice to hop onto.

Since 2008, 40 percent of us have lost our staff jobs and many will not find another, certainly those of us who are older than 40, let alone 50.

Some writers boast about their “six figure freelancing” — i.e. earning $100,000 a year. But virtually none of them are making that money from writing for journalism clients but from a mix of corporate, teaching, custom content and other much more lucrative but less glamorous or visible revenue streams.

I call it the Income Iceberg, the invisible work many of us never discuss publicly but which also buys our groceries and kids’ clothes and fills our gas tank and sustains us.

The dirty secret? The Big Name Outlets writers love to boast about writing for can take months to edit (and pay for) our work, sit on it until it becomes unusable and/or kill it outright, costing us thousands in anticipated and budgeted-for income.

And the Freelancer’s Union recently posted a lousy statistic — that the average freelance is stiffed out of $6,000 in payments a year, 13 percent of their income.

This is what my writing life looks like now…

London -- much more my speed!

London — much more my speed!

January

In England, I spend a day reporting on a non-profit group in a small town about an hour outside London. The teens are welcoming and friendly, and I spend an hour in an unheated warehouse interviewing one of them. To maximize efficiency and lower food/hotel costs, I do all my interviews, about six of them, in one marathon day.

I stay overnight in a gorgeous small inn, 200 years old, and enjoy an excellent meal. Perk!

Back in London, I interview their major funder, sitting in the lobby of the Goring, the hotel where the Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate Middleton) slept the night before her wedding.

This toggling between totally different worlds — the men around us whispering, wearing gold signet rings and bespoke suits — is typical of my work, and one reason I enjoy it, talking to the poorest and the wealthiest, speaking to both (or their rep’s) to tell my stories.

Journalism’s appeal for me, and for many others, is the entree it gives us into many lives we would never encounter any other way.

I  learn something new almost every day.

I arrive home in New York, ready to start revising a major national women’s magazine profile, 3,500 words, of a local woman whose work I’ve long admired. I spent eight hours with her alone, taking notes, and spoke to a dozen others to learn more about her.

She spoke really quickly and, because I don’t use a tape recorder, I needed physical therapy for my right wrist from note-taking for hours on end at top speed; I use voice dictation of my notes for the first time.

Then I read a story in The New York Times that her organization is now embroiled in a scandal. My story is killed. (Luckily, I’m paid in full, a sum that will represent almost 25 percent of the year’s income.)

February

I turn in the British story to Reader’s Digest, excited to have my first story published with them. But my emails and calls to the group in England for fact-checking, (a standard part of the publishing process for major magazines), mysteriously go unreturned.

They’ve shut down —  barely two months after we met.

Magazines pay what are called “kill fees”, a negotiated amount they offer when a story can’t be used. I lose $900 of anticipated income.

The campus is lovely...

The campus is lovely…

March

I’m teaching at a private college in Brooklyn, a writing class for freshmen and a blogging class of mixed-year students. Both classes are small, but they’re night and day in terms of the students’ enthusiasm and level of commitment to the work.

Like many adjuncts, I have no office or faculty connections, and no institutional support at all. When I encounter difficulty with several students, I have no one to turn to for advice or help; the dean has made clear we’re not to bother him.

And my commute means I leave home in the freezing dark at 7:00 am, drive 90 minutes in rush-hour traffic, then wait another 90 minutes for class to start. If I leave any later, traffic is so bad I’d be late for my own class.

Two of my fall students come to the cafeteria to hang out with me before their classes, I’m glad that at least a few of them enjoyed my teaching. I also visit before my first class with a new friend, a woman who teaches painting there.

April/May

I also coach fellow writers by phone and Skype, and meet a few of them here in New York City, usually at a quiet tea room or coffee shop. They take one of my webinars or buy an hour of my time and advice, $225.00

I really enjoy one-on-one teaching and the variety of my adult students.

 

20131114105242

June/July/August

I teach a one-night class at the New York School of Interior Design to six designers, all women, a totally different experience teaching adults than undergrads. As a former NYSID student, it’s an honor to be invited back to teach there.

Jose and I take our longest vacation in a decade, three weeks in Ireland. I do a bit of research for possible stories, but mostly relax and recharge.

Thanks to some work I did for her at another publication, writing about watches, of all things, an editor contacts me with a huge project, 15 1,000-word profiles of non-profit leaders for the Case Foundation. The work will carry my byline, a long commitment to a project I find compelling.

Thanks to a friend’s generosity, we spend 10 days at his home in Maine and I conduct some of these interviews there from the dining table; as long as I have access to wifi and a telephone, I can work anywhere.

A story finally runs in The New York Times I’d written months earlier. Writers for the paper are only paid after the story is used, so any piece that sits unused equals (long) deferred income.

It’s a problem for many freelancers; like everyone else, our bills arrive monthly but our payments are routinely late, sometimes for months — a real, ongoing source of stress.

September

Sometimes the best story ideas show up in somewhere as banal as my Facebook feed.

One woman described a terrible day when her husband took their dog for a walk in broiling summer heat and the dog almost died of heatstroke — even though the car was air-conditioned and her husband stopped several times to give the dog water.

I wrote that story for The New York Times, grateful to find a good story so easily and one that my friend was willing to share more widely.

 

My last book -- published in 2011. Eager to write the next one!

My last book — published in 2011. Eager to write the next one!

October/November

Now working on a book proposal, a process every non-fiction writer must go through. It’s an intellectual blueprint, a layout of what the book would be, why it matters, why now and to whom. It’s a shit-ton of unpaid spec work, in addition to my paid work.

I become co-chair of a volunteer board of 13 fellow writers. I have no training or experience running a board, although I’ve served on two of them for years.

The ongoing freelance challenge each of us faces, finding interesting, well-paid work you might even enjoy and can also do well and quickly enough to pull in significant income every single month.

December

Marketing!

People who want to write for a living fantasize that they’ll…write for a living. In reality, much of my time is spent marketing my skills and ideas to past and future clients. Some of those ideas never sell.

I write two brief stories for a personal finance website.

A friend I met a decade ago when she was a foreign correspondent for the Times invites me to lunch. She has a fantastic staff job doing investigative work. It’s comforting to talk to someone who really understands what producing high-quality journalism demands, with its joys and frustrations.

We both crave tough editors to keep up sharp and readers who respond to the finished work, some of which consumes months, even years.

I email my agent to ask how the proposal is going. He wants to strengthen it and says we need to hold off submitting it for a month or so. No book proposal gets read without an agent’s cover letter. He knows the current publishing market. I defer to his judgment.

I head north to Toronto by train — a 12-hour journey — to spend the holidays with family and friends.

If you celebrate holidays during this season, I hope you enjoy them!

Thanks for making the time to visit, read and comment here on Broadside.

I really appreciate it!

 

What it takes to be a professional writer

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, work on October 22, 2015 at 3:38 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

It looks so easy.

Write, hit send.

Done!

In an era when we’re inundated with a veritable verbal Niagara — blogs, websites, Twitter, legacy media (i.e. newspapers and magazines), television, radio and, oh yeah, books — writing looks like such an easy-peasy way to make your name quickly.

I’ve been doing this for a living since my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, where I started learning my skills — yes, really — writing for the weekly school newspaper. I never studied journalism, then or later. But I worked for demanding, smart editors. A lot.

I’ve since produced two works of nationally-reported non-fiction, won a National Magazine Award and worked as a reporter for three major daily newspapers; my website has details, if of interest.

The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker

The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker

Here are some of the skills and behaviors you need as a professional writer of journalism and non-fiction:

Curiosity

Without it, don’t even bother. If you’re the person who drove your teachers nuts — and maybe you still do! — with endless questions, this is a great skill. You’re not just being annoying. The best writers are endlessly fascinated by the world and the people around us, whether the woman sitting next to you in a cafe or the homeless man on the corner or the neighbor who never, ever smiles.

What’s their story?

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

Tact — aka wrangling strangers

I tell would-be journalists that our job is much less that of writing well (which matters, of course!) than the ability to wrangle strangers. If you can’t make a total stranger immediately comfortable in your presence, whether face to face or over the phone or Skype or email, you won’t be able to gather the information, color, detail and compelling anecdotes your story needs to come alive.

Many people are afraid of, or even hate, journalists and their nosy questions. People are shy or scared and/or fear they’ll be misquoted or taken out of context.

It’s your job to soothe their fears — ethically! — and allow them to share their story.

Empathy

No functional journalist can do a good job without it. No matter who your subject is, or how different they are from you, you must seek to understand and convey their experience of the world.

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!

Attention

We live in a noisy and distracted world. The greatest gift you can offer someone now is your undivided attention — and you theirs. People have much to tell us, but in order to hear them clearly we need to listen attentively.

Put down your phone!

Shut the door and eliminate all possible interruptions (dogs, kids, coworkers) while you’re conducting an interview.

Read others’ writing

Every ambitious creative makes time and spends money observing the best of their field — musicians, dancers, film-makers, artists. How else to appreciate the consummate skill and technique they’ve honed?

I now see younger writers sneering at the antiquated notion they actually need to learn their craft. They do.

I read many magazines and newspapers, a few longform websites, (Aeon, Medium, Narratively) and many works of non-fiction. I’m still hungry, even decades into my own successful career, to watch others being excellent and to learn what I can from them.

My first book, published in 2004

My first book, published in 2004

Listen to others’ interview techniques

Like the legendary NPR host Terry Gross; here’s a recent profile of her.

Social capital — aka connections

Essential.

It’s not as difficult as some imagine to forge connections with writers, agents, editors, even those with a lot more experience than you have right now. Attend every conference you can, like this one — for women only, in New York City, November 7 and 8.

Create and carry with you everywhere a handsome business card and be sure to collect others’.

When you meet someone whose work you admire, let them know. If you want to break into this world, reach out to other writers on Twitter, through their blogs, at classes and seminars and workshops.

Writers can be shy and introverted but no one makes it alone.

Patience

No one, I guarantee you, is an “overnight success.” You may only see their front-page byline or NYT best-seller tag, but it probably took them years to achieve the social capital, skills, experience and insights to get there. I weary of newer writers stamping their feet and expecting it all to happen on some accelerated timeline.

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011

Persistence

Both of my books, (well-reviewed), were each rejected by 25 publishers before a major New York house bought them, the first by Pocket Books, (a division of Simon & Schuster) and Portfolio, (a division of Penguin.) My agents (two different ones for each book) did not give up.

Many successful writers face tremendous rejection along the way to eventual success.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

Attention to craft

I can’t say this too strongly.

Learn your craft!

Take a class, find a mentor or coach, read books on how to write well — there are many, from Stephen King to Anne Lamott to Roy Peter Clark.

It’s arrogant and naive to think that simply pushing hard on the heavy doors of the publishing and journalism world will gain you access.

If they do swing open, you’d better bring a strong set of skills!

And now that editors are busy and overwhelmed, very few have the time, interest or energy to mentor you or help you improve your writing and reporting along the way.

So….how to conduct a terrific interview?

How to gather the reporting your story most needs?

How to come up with great, timely, salable ideas?

I offer webinars, (individually, scheduled at your convenience) and have coached many writers worldwide to improved skills and confidence.

One of them, a 22 year old Harvard grad traveling the world alone by bicycle to gather stories of climate change, hired me to get her work into The Guardian — with no prior journalism experience.

Here it is.

American life, 2015 — income inequality ‘r us

In behavior, business, cities, culture, journalism, life, politics, U.S., urban life on September 14, 2015 at 2:21 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20150909_121335101_HDR

Are you familiar with the Gini coefficient?

It measures income inequality — the chart linked above lists it for every U.S. state.

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack, were raised in a NYC apartment by their hyper-controlling father

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack, were raised in a NYC apartment by their hyper-controlling father

New York, where I’ve lived since leaving my native Canada in 1989 — ranks 50th. i.e. second worst in this regard in the United States.

The worst? You have to laugh, albeit bitterly, Washington, D.C., home to the Capitol and the nation’s federal legislators.

I recently re-lived it, while working on a story for a New York City website about a company giving out food to bring awareness of food insufficiency — aka not having enough to eat every day — in the city’s five boroughs.

Fresh flowers, always on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fresh flowers, always on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a bequest from a wealthy patron. A gorgeous side of Manhattan many tourists see….but there are other, darker realities as well

Last week, I spent two broiling hot, humid days — 95 degrees — working in the poorest part of the poorest Congressional district in the country, the South Bronx. Local residents lined up that day, as I walked over from the subway, some carrying parasols against the brutal heat, some arriving from the public housing complex across the street, for a van offering medical care.

Many of them line up, three days every week, for whatever the food pantry has on offer; I saw many bags of bread and rolls, crisp green apples and cookies.

I was there to watch a company hand out food, and to write about it.

I did this with mixed feelings.

Yes, charity is a good thing.

Yes, alleviating hunger and poverty is a good thing.

But everything is a very small bandage on a large gaping wound.

It is deeply shocking, if you still have gauzy fantasies of America!!!!!! to see the reality of American poverty face to face.

I stopped that day for a quick lunch, (I never eat fast food!), at McDonald’s, one of a dozen fast or fried-food joints lining 125th Street in Harlem. Parts of that street, even in sunny mid-day, have some people nodding off after using a new synthetic form of marijuana.

The restaurant’s clientele that day was, possibly, 10 percent Caucasian.

I had a long conversation, half in French, half in English, with a young librarian from Normandy, traveling for a month with his wife. They planned to visit New York, Philadelphia, D.C. L.A. and San Francisco, which, I told him, would also offer some insights into the income inequality now splitting the country in a way unseen since the Gilded Age, some 100 years ago.

“I can’t believe what I see,” he told me, gazing around at our fellow diners, many using crutches, canes and motorized wheelchairs, some the result of diabetes and obesity.

Welcome to the U.S., I said.

The next day I visited another part of the Bronx; (for you non-New Yorkers, that’s one of the city’s five boroughs, north of Manhattan, a place very few tourists are ever likely to see), this one an astounding and essential part of the city, the Hunt’s Point Food Center.

I saw the warehouse for the Food Bank for New York City, an entity I was certainly well aware of; you can’t live here for any length of time without some idea of their work.

From their website:

Hunger is caused by food poverty, a lack of geographic and/or financial access to nutritious food. In New York City, one of the richest cities in the world, food poverty is around every corner. Throughout the five boroughs, approximately 1.4 million people — mainly women, children, seniors, the working poor and people with disabilities — rely on soup kitchens and food pantries. Approximately 2.6 million New Yorkers experience difficulty affording food for themselves and their families.

Their warehouse has nine bays, each loading millions of pounds of food each month, in and out.

IMG_20150909_131638156

We were given a tour by the warehouse manager, running the place since 1994, a burly, lively whiz running a team zipping about in hand-trucks in a space so enormous it simply boggled the mind.

Imagine the biggest store you’ve ever seen, in the U.S. a Home Depot, for example. Try again!

This warehouse is 90,000 square feet — the above image, (mine), gives you some idea how enormous.

In my 25 years living here, few experiences have struck me as powerfully as these past few days, powerful and visceral reminders that there are many New Yorks, not just the ones tourists see or the ones shown in movies and on television.

It’s hard sometimes, living here, to manage the cognitive dissonance that comes with being even vaguely socially conscious in New York — the size oo’s in their Prada and Gucci, stepping out of their driver-chauffeured Escalades into helicopters to fly to their mansions in the Hamptons.

And…this.

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