This week I read more than I wrote (and that’s okay)

The headlines from three amazing pieces I read this week.
The headlines from three amazing pieces I read this week.

Though most chestnuts of writing advice often miss the mark for me, there is one from Stephen King that rattles around in my brain frequently:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

Some weeks (like this week) I may not have had enough time to dedicate to writing, but I always try to read a handful of articles a day, along with headlines and breaking news.

I keep Twitter open throughout the day as my own personal news ticker. I’ll save pieces that pique my interest to Pocket and read them as I get a few minutes here or there.

Here’s a list of some of the ones I’ve read since my last post. Some are new, some are old but all of them made me think.

For a daily version of this, follow me on Twitter. Happy reading!

The Métis Question: Defining the uniquely Canadian people who founded Manitoba is no easy task
By Mary Ages Welch, Winnipeg Free Press

We’re Telling the Wrong Black History Month Stories
By Ashley Nicole Black, attn:

Why Women Don’t Apply for Jobs Unless They’re 100% Qualified
By Tara Sophia Mohr, Harvard Business Review

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson discuss the one movie everyone must see
By Sam Fragoso, The Dissolve

Storytelling ability connected Brian Williams with viewers but also led to his downfall
By Manuel Roig-Franzia, Scott Higham and Amy Brittain, The Washington Post

The Difference Between Routine and Ritual: How to Master the Balancing Act of Controlling Chaos and Finding Magic in the Mundane
By Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

Which news organizations let their reporters swear?
By Benjamin Mullin, Poynter

Let’s Call Female Online Harassment What It Really Is: Terrorism
By Anne Thériault, VICE

Women shouldn’t have to lead like men to be successful
By Roxanne Gay, Fortune

Women of Color Working in STEM Fields Are Frequently Mistaken for Janitors
By Sarah Mirk, Bitch

A Controversial Ranking of Mr. Darcys
By Sarah Hagi, The Hairpin

Gender gaps in journalism classes and newsrooms concern students
By Antara Sinha, USA Today

The Husband Did It
By Alice Bolin, The Awl

For Less Corporate Fraud, Add Female Executives
By Gillian B. White, The Atlantic


What journalists can learn from ‘Poetry Has Value’

Photo by Flickr user duckiemonster used under Creative Commons. Photo by Flickr user duckiemonster used under Creative Commons.

When people find out you’re a writer they will inevitably ask you how you “got into it”. It’s a funny funny question because we so rarely hear other professionals asked it. Ever hear someone ask, “How did you get into being an accountant?” or “How did you get into being an electrician?” at a party?

It’s like somehow writing is something you stumble across in the dark of night when you’re wandering and lost.

In reality, I got into journalism because I was bad at math and good at writing. I had a knack for words, I’m naturally inquisitive and I don’t suffer fools lightly so I found a career where those are assets.

Unfortunately, the conversation turns quickly from your abilities and skill to how horrible it must be to watch newspapers collapse all around you, see colleagues and friends get laid off or relegated to endless short-term unstable contracts. Then come the suggestions about what I should do instead: “Give it up, do something sensible” and stable,” they say. “You should get into PR because that’s where the ‘real’ money is.”

For one thing it’s rude, insulting, insensitive and patronizing to say that to someone. For another, it comes most often from the people who’ll ask if you can do a little work for them. For free. As in, get paid zero dollars for your expertise and skill.

There are, of course, some times where writing for free is just fine. But for the most part it is unconscionable for multi-national corporations, government agencies, private businesses and friends (yes, even them) to ask you to work for $0.

Would they ask their dentist to perform a root-canal for free? Would they ask their lawyer to draw up their will for zip? Would they tell their plumber she’ll have to fix their leaky faucet for zilch? Would they ask their mechanic to fix their car for nada? The answer: “Never, what kind of penny-pinching tightwad do you think I am?!”

So why are professional writers constantly getting asked to work for free?

In his New York Times editorial Slaves of the Internet, Unite! Tim Kreider comes to this conclusion:

I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us. They figure we must be flattered to have someone ask us to do our little thing we already do.

Earlier this year two friends of mine, both poets, got talking about what it would be like to only submit to outlets that pay. So began the Poetry Has Value project. This year Jessica Piazza is only submitting her work to journals and other markets that pay, thanks in part to that chat with Dena Rash-Guzman.

In journalism, like in poetry, there are plenty of places to publish your work. But that number drops significantly when you look for outlets that pay even a modest sum or honourarium for a piece of work. And, unfortunately, a dollar amount is still the most direct way to show the value of your time, effort and work. As Kreider says:

[M]oney is…how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up.

Certainly, not everyone can hold out and wait to publish in a paying publication. But that doesn’t mean we should all be willing participants for outlets that are exploiting writers for their own gains. It’s bull-pucky when companies and corporations say they “don’t have the budget” to pay writers. That’s because you didn’t make the budget to pay them. If you want the best talent writing their best work, pay up.

But the challenge comes, as J-Source writes, in the negotiation of rates for work.

Most freelance journalists must represent themselves in negotiations with editors. This is not an easy task for individuals for whom securing future work depends on a good reputation and good relationships with editors.

So what’s a freelancer to do? If you’re able, only submit to paying outlets. If you’re not quite there yet, be very choosy with where you submit unpaid work. Set up boundaries for yourself and stick to them. I can’t tell you what your rules should be, but they should reflect your values and why you got into writing in the first place.

The onus to get paid for our work is partially on us, the writers, to say enough is enough. It’s on us to that what we do has value and by submitting primarily (or entirely) to outlets that pay we can push back against the idea that writers should just be grateful for the chance to publish.

Writing isn’t a hobby or a side-project for me. It’s not something I work on when the mood strikes. I went to school and studied it and it’s how I make my living. And when my landlord starts accepting “exposure” as currency, that’s when I’ll write for it.

More about getting paid for your writing:

Who Pays Writers – An anonymous, crowdsourced list of which publications pay freelance writers, and how much.

Poetry Journals that Pay – A public document listing journals that pay for poetry. Fully viewable and editable by the public.

How Much do Freelance Journalists Make? – from J-Source

What to Pay a Writer – Thinking of hiring someone to do some writing? This hand list from the Professional Writers Association of Canada will tell you what you should expect to pay.

Poetry Has Value

duckiemonster on Flickr

The lost art of letter writing

A selection of cards sent to me by far-flung friends hangs over my desk in my home office.
A selection of cards sent to me by far-flung friends hangs over my desk in my home office.

When I was in grade 7, my teacher asked the class if anyone would be interested in writing to a girl who lived in France. Not for credit, just for fun. I volunteered for the task and, over the course of the next six years, I would exchange dozens of letters with her. Our correspondence was severed when we both started university. But that wasn’t the end of my stint as a pen pal.

To this day I regularly swap letters with friends of mine who live elsewhere, mostly pals I went to school with. Of course we all understand there are more efficient ways to keep in touch, but those all lack the charm and soul of getting something in the post. They lack the patina of ink smudges, hand-selected (or handmade) cards and stationery, even the occasional scribble to cover up a spelling error. It’s a delightful visit that replaces the kinds of chats we’d have over coffee or a pint if we lived in the same city.

For all the endearing qualities sending and receiving letters has, it’s also a practical exercise in a quickly disappearing art. To understand how to write a letter is to understand conversation and communication. It requires a direct, thoughtful and deliberate way of addressing a friend’s achievements, failures, worries, career woes; anything they think is important to tell you. There is an art and a craft to penning a letter that’s just different from typing an email.

For me, email is almost entirely utilitarian. Snailmail is an indulgence and a treat; like biting into a perfect french macaron. Letters are a little surprise that creep up on you and land in your mailbox.

Sometimes I send a cute card I’ll find at a favourite stationery shop. Other times I’ll print my own paper or make my own envelopes. Occasionally I’ll even tap out a note on my trusty manual typewriter!

I’ve been a pen pal for more than a decade and I keep every letter I receive. I display the cards people have sent me from all over the world. I keep the letters in my desk at home. They still bring me joy, every last one of them.

A small sample of my letter collection.
A small sample of my letter collection.

Sure, video chat, IM and texting make it easy to catch up with friends who are far away, but somehow it’s the time and effort involved in writing and sending a letter that makes it even sweeter.

Pen pal resources and reading:
The Paper Trail Diary – a blog about paper-loving hobbies including letter writing and pen palling, as well as zines, books and crafts (aka most of my favourite things)

The Postal Society – a place for mail addicts from all over the world. Sign up for an account and take part in mail swaps, chain letters or find a new pen pal.

Instagram – searching various mail-related hashtags shows you just how creative letter writers can get! Suggested hashtags: #snailmail #penpal #snailmailrevolution #writealetter

Writing: Verb, present continuous

The wall above my desk with the list of ways to write every day flanked by photos taken at Hemingway House in Key West, Florida.
The wall above my desk with the list of ways to write every day flanked by photos taken at Hemingway House in Key West, Florida.

It is a common habit among writer friends of mine to worry about whether or not they really are a writer. Writers, after all, write. And if one isn’t writing, can one still call them self a writer?

This self-doubt can paralyze even the most talented writers.

The funny thing about ‘writing’ is that it exists as both a noun and a verb. Unfortunately we tend to see the noun as the one worthy of credit and value while discounting or forgetting the verb that’s required to get to a finished, sellable project.

The common advice to young or inexperienced writers who want to make a career of writing is to write every day. It sounds easy, but convincing yourself to do so when you’re tired and just feel like watching crummy t.v. instead is a challenge.

For me, sitting down to write is still not built into my daily schedule. It still requires a lot of effort for me to settle in at my desk at the end of a long day of work or on my days off and put pen to paper. Yes, I still use a pen and paper (and cursive!), at least when I’m first drafting a piece. I even have a typewriter I bring out from time to time!

Today's blog post started out on paper, in longhand, with an entirely different idea!
Today’s blog post started out on paper, in longhand with an entirely different idea!

I’ve been doing little bits of writing each night I can muster the energy, even just for five minutes here or 20 minutes there. Just a bit at a time. I’ve started to think of it as a training exercise and it seems to be helping. When I was doing gymnastics, I spent between 16 and 20 hours a week in the gym practicing, doing and re-doing routines. And I won a gold medal at nationals because of that. Why should writing be any different? To write well, you need to practice.

Even though many (if not most) people can string together words to create sentences and mash those sentences together to create paragraphs and documents, writing well is a vocation and a skill. Like golf, it’s something you practice your whole life and never truly master. But you still practice anyway because it just makes you tick.

For me this blog is a weekly exercise in style, form, voice and tone; the writing equivalent of hitting the driving range. It’s also a place to channel thoughts and ideas that may not be perfectly sellable to a magazine or website. And sometimes the words just don’t come.

Sometimes you get stuck on a piece that won’t budge. Other days the words just don’t come out right. Sometimes everything you put on the page just reads like a big pile of garbage. But not even the top golfers hit a hole-in-one every time. For those days, I have a list (adapted from this one) of this I consider writing (seen in the photo abpve).

Just as important is knowing when to stop on a project. For me, I try to remember this Hemingway quote:

I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.-As quoted in Reporting (1964) by Lillian Ross

There’s more than one way to write and each person’s process is different. But the goal, I think, is always the same: to do it well. Once you figure out the verb, the noun will take care of itself.

Some things I learned from Roxane Gay’s ‘Bad Feminist’

Bad Feminist is in good company as part of my desktop essentials.
Bad Feminist is in good company as part of my desktop essentials.

When I first heard about Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist, I knew I had to read it simply based on the title.

I spent much of my summer in an online group of women-identifying people I now refer to as ‘Feminist Summer Camp’. What started out as group filled with fun threads of jokes, light-hearted banter about ‘smashing the patriarchy’ and general goofiness soon descended into a nearly unrecognizable place of feminist one-upmanship and bullying. It was a pot of water on the stove set to simmer and left to boil over.

There were countless mutinies over the few months I was in the group. People were banned because they weren’t measuring up to a set of unique expectations of Feminism each member would impose on others. There were accusations of tone-policing and name-calling that ranged from school-yard bullying tactics all the way to labelling near strangers as bigots, SWERFs, homophobes and worse.

There was an invisible yet rigid framework that ended up alienating people who were doing their best to modify their behaviour to be more inclusive. In some cases, people were banned for simply misspeaking or making a mistake. Other times members would be ganged up on in such overwhelming numbers, they’d just leave the group.

Grown women who claimed to be feminists used fear tactics and brought down other women just to keep control of the group and I could not be part of it any more.

When I finally quit, I was sad at how I saw a group of people who are ostensibly fighting for the same cause go after each other for not being the ‘right’ kind of feminist: not being intersectional enough, not considering or adequately checking (assumed) privileges, condemning tone policing while tone policing others.

Essentially, it was a handful of admins serving as judges at the Social Justice Olympics and a small crew of devoted followers trying to win a gold medal.

When I quit the group, I was left scratching my head about whether or not I was truly a feminist or, on particularly dark days, whether that was a label I even still wanted. I was upset about being pushed from the group for not being radical enough, for not being intersectional enough, for not shouting about systemic injustices every time I could, for not going to marches and rallies. Essentially, for being the ‘wrong kind of feminist’; a ‘bad feminist’.

I was looking for direction and I found it in Gay’s book.

In her essays, Gay uses personal anecdotes and her lived experiences to anchor her argument that there is no such thing as a perfect feminist. It is a fallacy because feminism is carried out by people and people are flawed.

“Feminism’s failings,” she says, “do not mean we should eschew feminism entirely.”

But the paragraph that follows is what resonated most with me and the reason I haven’t given up on feminism.

We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.

That’s what went wrong with Feminist Summer Camp: the people who gave enough of a damn “to try to minimize the fractures among us” weren’t the loudest people in the group and got drowned out by people who were more brusque, emphatic or who simply wouldn’t back down from an argument.

It’s not that ‘we’ as feminists can’t have nice things. It’s that in making a collective effort of Feminism, we have to remember we’re talking to people with their own views and differences and otherness and hangups and lived experiences we can’t always see. It reminds me, in a way, of the Kuleshov Effect in filmmaking.

We have two people whose ideas of feminism are informed by their unique experiences. As these ideas are presented side by side in conversation or debate, we derive more meaning from the interaction of the two ideas than the singular one we had before. As Eisenstein said, two things that come crashing together create a ‘third thing’ that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In Bad Feminist, I sought a compass for my own feminism and was reminded why I took up the cause in the first place. There is so much inequality in the world and that manifests itself in so many unspeakably awful ways.

But this one thing called feminism is something I can take on and work on chipping away at. If enough of us with different experiences and expectations chip away at it long enough, we may one day find that equality we seek.

Changes, big and small

It’s been much too long since I’ve used this site as anything other than a filing cabinet for clippings.

There have been many changes in my life and career since that last (somewhat woeful) post. Since then, I’ve moved back to Toronto and started a job at Sportsnet working on the web team. I’ve also successfully pitched and published my first freelance piece.

With all that change, it’s been challenging to set a writing schedule and stick to it. Thus, the languishing blog. But, with a more settled feeling to everything and a new year upon us, there’s no time like the present to resuscitate this site.

The goal is to give myself a space to write about the art and craft of writing, journalism and media, things I’ve been reading, thinking about, issues and topics I’ve been pondering.

The best thing a writer can do it write. If I don’t afford myself that benefit, why should anyone else.

So, add one more voice to the Internet’s echo chamber.

Until next time,

I’m Still Here!

I’m the first person to admit the job hunt is tough. The youth unemployment numbers state it as fact, and I’m here to tell you that it’s true. Luckily, I’m undeterred and I don’t give up easily.

I could repeat some tired adages and clichés and say,”Keep calm and carry on,” or “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” but I won’t. To me, that is giving in and saying, “Please job, just fall into my lap”. Job seeking is an active process and I’m going at it like it’s my job. You make it happen yourself.

I’m fortunate to have awesome friends and family who have full faith in me and help me make connections where I can. I have wonderful mentors who are putting me in touch with their contacts and giving me great advice.

I’m networking, engaging online and setting up meetings. I’m updating my resume and giving it to whoever will take it. I’m pursuing freelancing and volunteer writing whenever I can. I figure that if I shake enough trees, something will fall eventually. It’s a numbers game, plain and simple.

So, for now, my daily job application regimen is what I’m up to. Recording, producing and editing my podcast about film called Reel Talk is what I’m up to. Writing, networking and making it happen is what I’m up to.

One of these days I’m going to get a job and, whether it’s in print, broadcast, online or something else, it’s going to be great! But, for now, I’m keeping my sunny side up and working hard.

It’s a jungle out there, but there’s room for me!