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Category Archives: Writing Life

Everything You Needed to Know about Being a Better Reader, You Learned from Your Mom

My mom didn’t invent this saying, but she sure loved it:

“If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

Maybe your mom said that to you, too. Maybe it was when you complained about the one part of dinner–beets or broccoli, say–that you didn’t like rather than focus on the other parts of the meal that you really loved and for which you were grateful. Maybe it was when you said something unkind about another kid, even though you’d experienced the sting of being wounded by someone else’s words yourself. Whatever the scenario, I’m sure your mom pulled that stock phrase of parenting out of her play book and used it on you at least once.

I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot this weekend, as I process some of the criticism of my long-form feature on Roads + Kingdoms and Slate (a longer post about that coming soon) and as I’ve serendipitously come across some posts by other writers who have been feeling the sting of impulsive reader comments, like this one from The Joy of Cooking website. That post really resonated with me because the writers explained so personally and passionately the pain of working their asses off, spending lots of their own money on their work, and being as meticulous as anyone can be, only to receive sniping email comments about how the site could obviously function better or why in the world wouldn’t they post the recipe for chess pie? (Answer: Because they’d actually like to make a living by selling their cookbook).

I don’t want to be overly pitiful or pitiable about this–I’m fully aware that the hazards and downsides of most other jobs are far worse–but one of the most frustrating aspects of being a writer is that the reader almost never knows what happens in the making of an article or essay. They don’t know what you have to leave out, nor do they know why. They don’t know what gets changed along the writing-to-publication trajectory. They don’t know that you can read your own writing two dozen times, have two editors review it meticulously almost as many times, and still write “flaunts” when you meant “flouts” because, well, we tend to read what we meant to write, not what’s actually on the page. But the reader, of course, catches it, and then seems to think he needs to track down your email address and school you on your wrong word choice. (Yes, that happened.). And in most cases, they don’t know your larger body of work and they don’t know you, so they’re ever so quick to make assumptions about things that aren’t even related to the piece of writing they’re criticizing… like how much you’ve been paid to write the piece (and they always assume it’s been a lot).

Now I want to be clear: I am not against being critical. Criticism is good. It’s important. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone more critical of herself and others than I. But I don’t know anyone who likes being on the receiving end of criticism that isn’t framed thoughtfully or which is presented in a sneering, hostile, or arrogant tone. Listen to Mom: If you can’t frame your criticism constructively, step away from the keyboard.

There’s another facet of this, too. Don’t just feel compelled to comment when you’ve got constructive criticism. Reach out to writers to let them know when their work touches, informs, or inspires you. I’ve been doing this more lately–even if it’s just to give a quick “Hey, thanks for your article about widgets” shout-out via twitter–and it feels good. I’ve taken photos of writers’ books I’ve seen on bookshelves in places where I’m traveling and sent them a quick note: “Hey! Look what I saw at the Hudson News in the Memphis Airport- your book!” Writers love this. Writers need it. It turns the line that runs between the writer and reader–often completely invisible– into a circle. It breaks the isolation that often traps the writer behind his or her byline. And often, it starts a conversation, relationship, or quick exchange about shared interests. It makes the writer feel good, and trust me, writers need to feel good because there’s a whole lot about our career that attempts to chip away at one’s sense of self.

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“I’m not definitively rich” (or: The strange economics of the creative life)

Earlier today, I received the proofs for a 2,000 word article I have coming out in the next issue of Emory Magazine, the alumni magazine of Emory University, one of my alma maters.

The subject of the article is visual artist Brendan McConnell, also an Emory grad. Earlier this year, McConnell rocketed out of relative obscurity and straight into the pages of The New Yorker in a lengthy profile piece written by Susan Orlean. The publication of that article was followed by a nearly six-minute segment on “The Colbert Report,” a spot on the front page of The Boston Globe, and a post on NPR’s popular food blog, “The Salt.”

Despite all this coverage, I actually hadn’t heard of O’Connell when I was assigned the article. I read all the press, watched “The Colbert Report” segment, and spent a lot of time on O’Connell’s website before we met for our interview at a restaurant in Manhattan. Without intending to denigrate the other writers and folks who had covered O’Connell, I was struck by how each piece was essentially a rehash of Orlean’s article. Everyone focused on the part of O’Connell’s oeuvre that Orlean had written about: his series of paintings about Walmart.

Yes, Walmart.

I had to write about that, too–it was a significant element of the specs I’d been given by the magazine editor. But I also hoped I’d be able to angle into some other aspects of O’Connell’s life and career that no one else had addressed in their pieces about him.

One of the things I was most interested in was what impact O’Connell’s seemingly sudden success had had on him so far. He could now sell a painting for $40,000. $40,000! How did that feel? Was it life-changing? Did he view all this media coverage as a total game changer?

I’ll admit, the interest was as personal as it was professional. Since the publication of the Pope book this spring, I’ve had a number of friends and acquaintances assume that I’d suddenly hit the big time, the jackpot. Now don’t get me wrong: the book was a game changer in many ways. And financially, it came at a time when I really (no, really needed the money). I’m incredibly grateful for the financial and professional gains it granted me. But because the economics of the creative life are so strange, the book has not (at least not yet) been a windfall because what happens when a writer or artist comes into a chunk of change is that he or she can finally pay off bills that have been sitting around for a while. He or she might be able to invest in a little professional development or get a haircut or buy filet mignon for dinner instead of beef tips or make half a year’s deposit on their kid’s tuition. Maybe they can sock away a month or two worth of rent. Maybe they can purchase a health insurance plan. And these are not insignificant purchases or investments.

“I’m not definitively rich,” O’Connell said. “I can pay my phone bill now, and that’s nice. But definitively rich? No, not that.”

One of the things that happens when writers and artists suddenly start making money is that it tends to come, like O’Connell’s and mine has, in a couple of large deposits. Those are what people focus on. “O’Connell can make $40,000 on a painting?! He’s hit the big time!” What they don’t consider is how many paintings O’Connell needs to sell or how many books need to move off shelves for an artist or writer to approach the kind of “salary” that someone with a “regular” job makes in a year. If O’Connell only sells one painting at $40,000 this year, it’s not really a windfall at all. It’s $10,000 below the median household income in the United States. O’Connell, like me, has two kids. $40,000 can go surprisingly fast.

But don’t get me wrong. O’Connell and I are both grateful for the opportunities we’ve been given, opportunities that have given us more freedom and flexibility and, yes, liquidity, than many of our peers. He talks about that, and about many other themes, in the piece, which will be accessible in print and online in the fall issue of Emory Magazine. No more spoilers here- I hope you’ll read the piece when it’s available.

Hazards of Freelancing: Freelancing Ourselves into the Oblivion of Neglect

If you’ve followed this blog for a long time or if you know me reasonably well, you’ll know I love the freelance life.

Mostly.

This week, I’m taking a look at some of the hazards of freelancing. The first post in the series was “The Hidden Costs of Freelancing.”

Today? A look at how freelancing takes a toll on our closest relationships.
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“I’m not waving, I’m drowning.”

He didn’t say this, but he didn’t need to. It’s not as if I didn’t know the signs. It’s not as if I didn’t even see them.

The problem is, I did.

But I kept telling myself that I just had to get through this day, this project, or this whatever and then I’d take a break, decline new work briefly, and spend some quality time with him. We’d bank that time like money. He’d be better. And then I’d get back to work.

That never happened though because freelancing rarely affords a break, and I mean that literally: it’s nearly impossible to build up a financial cushion that lets you even entertain the idea of time off (at least this is true when you’re the main breadwinner in a family of four in New York City). So I’d finish that one project that needed to be finished and find myself picking up another one because what if I came back from a break to find that there was no work to be had? “I just need to finish this,” I said to myself, said to him. He never complained or called me out. He just started to get pulled out by the undertow. I could still see him, so he was ok, right? In fact, he was struggling to pull back to shore. From a distance, he looked so good, so strong, his clean stroke cutting capably through the water. We both looked good, which is what made everything more difficult. But then, he was just beyond my peripheral vision. And when I turned to check on him, he wasn’t waving.

He was drowning.

He wasn’t beyond saving, but we were both worse for the wear and worried about the long-term effects. And all the while, horribly, I still couldn’t stop thinking about all the work I still needed to get done… nor the fact that all that work probably wouldn’t buy us the time or space we needed just to lie on the beach together and breathe.

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When Orion was born five weeks ago, I couldn’t help but stop.

Here, not unexpectedly but not without uncertainty, either, was a second child. Here was a chance to experience the miracle of birth and infancy all over again, and the particular gift this time was that of knowing what, exactly, to look for and to drink in deep before it went away forever.

“Estás enamorada de ese niño,” Francisco told me, suggesting gently that maybe I was expressing more love for Orion that I had for Mariel when she was a baby. “I am in love with him,” I said, “but not more than with Mariel. I just know what to pay attention to this time so I don’t miss it before it’s gone.” The most clichéd advice passed from one parent to another goes through one ear and out the other with the first child, especially when you’re sleep deprived and unsure that anything you’re doing is right. “Spend as much time with them as you can. Enjoy every moment. It goes so fast.” I happened to be in a pause between projects and so I could enjoy those sweet early days and weeks. But I also knew that soon enough my attention would be divided. Until it was, I told Francisco, I would dedicate myself to the full-time project of immersing myself in the deep, transcendent, almost wordless joy of raising our kids with him.
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If it’s not obvious to you already, this post isn’t building up to some big reveal. I haven’t got all this figured out. It absolutely sucks–sorry, the only other way to say it is more crass–that the work I love and the work that, in so many other ways, frees me to be able to (theoretically at least) be the master of my own domain, also traps me on its own kind of hamster wheel. While other people are spinning on their wheels in offices without natural light or fresh air, during specific hours they can’t control, I’m spinning on my own wheel, treading at all sorts of hours and often frantically. And my reward–my cheese, I guess–is usually smaller than theirs.

The only difference–and it’s an important enough one to me–is that I can hop off my wheel for a few minutes or hours and do something different. I can spend the kind of time with my family that other folks envy. But it’s not always quality time. I’ve got one hand on the keyboard and the other bouncing a kid on my knee. Meanwhile, someone might be drowning. And it feels much harder than it should to blow the whistle and tell the powers that be that this system doesn’t function quite as it should.

So how’s the guidebook coming along?

Fine, thanks!

I’ve managed to stay on schedule–but not ahead of it, which would be nice– despite the arrival of this handsome little New Yorker:

Orion Pei Collazo Schwietert, born August 10, 2013.

Orion Pei Collazo Schwietert, born August 10, 2013.

Don’t you love that onesie? I got it at the gift shop at Rockwell Museum of Western Art in Corning, New York, a fantastic space and collection (and one that’s way kid-friendly).

The next chapter to be filed (tomorrow!) is Niagara-Buffalo-Western New York. And what about this blog? Be patient… I’ve got some fantastic posts coming up– interviews with writers and tech folks about two hot topics: the controversies of packaging articles with provocative covers/visuals and the promises and failures of data-driven journalism.

Back soon- off to write about Buffalo!

How to Write a Guidebook: Announcing My Next Big Project

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
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Moon New York, 5th edition.

Moon New York, 5th edition.

The ink on the contract is barely dry, but since the contract is signed, I can now share news about my next big project: I’ve been chosen to author Moon Handbook’s travel guide to New York State. Picking up where previous author Sascha Zuger left off, I’ll carry the book forward into its sixth edition and beyond.

This is an exciting project for me for a few reasons.

First, while I have a couple guidebook credits to my name (Fodor’s Puerto Rico and Fodor’s Caribbean), I was not the sole author of those works; Moon New York State will be entirely my baby. Second, I’ll be collaborating with Francisco, who will be shooting all of the photos for the book. As you probably know, there’s no one with whom I enjoy working more than my husband. Third, the timing couldn’t be better: there’s no better time to do on-the-road research in New York than the summer.

It’ll be wheels to the road and hands to the keyboard for the next 12 weeks, and you’ll notice that most of the posts here will be related to guidebook work. These process-oriented posts will give you behind-the-scenes glimpses of what writing a guidebook entails.

View of Rochester.

View of Rochester.

Over on my other blog, CollazoProjects, you’ll find posts that are out-takes from our travels around the state: quirky attractions, delicious food, and overlooked places that may or may not make it into the guidebook but deserve coverage.

We’ll still be promoting the Pope book, which was just published in Spanish, Portuguese, and German. And I’ll still be writing about the processes related to that book, too: How do reviews of books affect authors? How do you make sure your book finds its legs once it’s published? Expect plenty of practical pointers… when I can find an Internet connection.

Have a question about any aspect of the guidebook writing process? Feel free to ask me here or on twitter.

Yes, you have to choose. But can’t you choose everything?

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
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I am writing this on my iPhone in the backseat of a taxi.

I am coming home from a whirlwind research trip to Nicaragua and I have approximately 30 hours at home before my next flight.

Maybe I should have just stayed at the airport.
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While I was in Nicaragua, my normally patient and always supportive husband was beginning to show some signs of wear and tear– the collateral damage of being a writer’s partner (especially one who travels so much)– during our nightly gchats. Having recently started a blog of his own in addition to his work as a photographer, he’s finding it tough to carve out uninterrupted time to write AND be a full-time stay-at-home dad, one who holds down the fort and keeps the home fire burning when I’m gone (and, truth be told, when I’m home, too).

“I haven’t had a minute to write since you left,” he typed. “Am exhausted.” The man with boundless energy had hit the wall and was feeling frustrated about it.

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Over the past 3.5 years our roles have been reshaped to include the title of “parents” in our multi-hyphenated job descriptions. There is never enough time or energy to do everything we want to do. Writing and thinking are always interrupted. And yet, this is what we chose for ourselves– the vocation of parenthood– and we made the conscious decison to add another child to this romper room of a life we’ve made for ourselves.

People– mostly strangers I meet when traveling– keep asking me if I’m ready for this baby yet. “I keep telling him, ‘Just don’t come early because Ive got a lot to get done,'” I say. They laugh. I laugh.

I’m not joking.
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When I started writing this post a few weeks ago, various writer friends and acquaintances were circulating “10 tips for aspiring journalists” that journalist Michael Hastings dispensed before his death in a car accident in mid-June. Most repostings of the tips were accompanied by commentary like “Solid advice for budding [ugh] writers.” I guess it was/is solid advice, but perhaps most of it just feels so obvious to me that it’s hard to remember what it was like to hear any of that for the first time.

Tip 9 really rubbed me the wrong way, though:

“9) Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting. Like it’s more important to you than anything else in your life–family, friends, social life, whatever.”

It’s not the first part of tip 9 with which I take issue… obviously. If you don’t love reporting and you don’t love writing, why would you be in the business in the first place? The answer definitely isn’t “for the money,” and I genuinely can’t think of a single compelling answer why someone would devote herself or himself to writing or journalism if the inherent love for words and reporting wasn’t there.

It’s the second part of tip 9 with which I take issue: “Like it’s more important… than anything else in your life.” I hear this a lot. I have writer friends who defer having children or who are agonizing over whether they will decide to have children because they’re afraid that kids will intrude on their writing career and, especially, their neat trajectory toward the pinnacle of writing success… whatever that is.

Hastings’ advice makes me crazy because it reinforces the erroneous idea that writers have to be of the world yet never quite fully in it. That they don’t have to figure out how to make it all work because, well, writing’s just more important than anything: a healthy relationship, other hobbies and interests, and, possibly, the joys and, yes, the frustrations, of having kids.

It’s a false choice he proposed, in my opinion. Further, where does that leave writers and journalists who do have children or who believe that other parts of their lives are at least as important as writing and that, in fact, those parts of their lives give them tools and resources in their writing that they wouldn’t have otherwise?

It’s not that writers are free from the work of making choices. But I believe you can choose it all. I don’t believe that means anything will be easy. But I also believe that going it alone or that living life as if writing is more important than anything else– than everything else– is probably the hardest choice of all, and one that doesn’t actually serve a writer’s work as much as that bit of advice seems to imply.

Alma Guillermoprieto: “Fiction became impossible for me.”

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo & Video: Francisco Collazo
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Alma Guillermoprieto.

Alma Guillermoprieto.

I’ve long admired journalist Alma Guillermoprieto, whose interests and approach to them mirror my own. Though I’ve followed her career and read her writing for many years, I’d never had the opportunity to hear her speak in person until last week, when she offered several presentations as part of the “Reading Mexico” series at BookExpo America.

In the following video, Guillermoprieto answers the question, “Why don’t you write fiction?” Her response sums up why I’ve never dipped my pen into the inkwell of that genre, either: