A Virtual Toast To My Community Of Women Writers

February 10, 2011

Apologies if you’ve been trying to access the blog and had trouble. The blog is shortly to undergo a re-design and we have hit a few speed bumps along the way. Thanks for your patience. Stay tuned for RealDelia 2.0, coming soon to a theatre near you!

Yesterday I posted on the changes afoot over at Politics Daily and their practical implications for freelance writers like myself in forcing us to be more enterprising.

Today I wanted to address the emotional side of that equation.

As I think I’ve mentioned at several points over the past couple of years, I’ve had an absolute blast working at Politics Daily. When I started there, I’d taken a few years off from journalism to write a novel and launch this blog. So it felt great to roll up my sleeves and dive back into the brainstorming, research and reporting that goes into being a journalist. It was also a lot of fun to return to the sorts of international topics that I once taught and wrote about as a scholar.

And because the website was starting from scratch as a player in Online political journalism, I got to learn by doing about this thing we call ” new journalism” and all of the social media tools and 24/7 news frenzy that goes with it.

In short, it has been – and continues to be – a great learning and growth experience for me professionally.

Above all, however, the main reason that I have loved working at Politics Daily has been the community that grew up around it. It’s true of the publication as a whole and its top-notch columnists and editors. What a super crew. And it’s especially true of my little corner of the world there: Woman Up.

You’ve seen a lot of the work I’ve done for them over the past two years on this very page:  stories about the economics of abortion and the reality of socialized medicine as well as why I think it’s time to life the Cuba embargo and the connection between universities and terrorism.

But what you don’t see is the lovely and supportive community of women that’s grown up behind that space along the way. Most of us didn’t know each other before Woman Up began. Now we chat constantly with each other On line. We share story ideas. We laugh. We argue. We write.

I wrote a  post a few weeks back on this blog about the importance of making real-life friends. Woman Up has by in large been a virtual community of friends for me (although I did have the enormous pleasure of meeting many of the ladies in person at a cocktail party in Washington, D.C. over the holidays.) But even as a virtual coffee clutch, it’s been a vital part of my social and intellectual life for the past few years.

This virtual cocktail party (did you notice how I just seamlessly escalated us from coffee to vodka?) may now come to an end, at least in its present incarnation. We’ll know for sure soon. But even if it carries on under a different banner, it will likely be different.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I like change, after all. And the only thing that’s constant in life is change, so they say. But regardless of how things shape up in the future, I’m incredibly grateful to have been a part of this fine group of female journalists.

As I live in London, we  normally “raise a glass” on occasions like this and say “Cheers.”

But my Irish grandmother always said it in Gaelic: “Slainte.”

So Slainte, ladies. It’s been a great ride.

May it continue.

Image: Laura at Computer by panguy100 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Be Enterprising As A Freelancer

February 9, 2011

Apologies if you’ve been trying to access the blog and had trouble. The blog is shortly to undergo a re-design and we have hit a few speed bumps along the way. Thanks for your patience. Stay tuned for RealDelia 2.0, coming soon to a theatre near you!

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

On her inspiring e-zine, The Prosperous Writer, Christina Katz has a great post this week about the need for writers to be enterprising. Christina defines enterprising as “ready to undertake projects of importance or difficulty or characterized by great imagination or initiative.”

For her, it’s about undertaking projects that will change you and cause you to grow. It’s about getting inspired. And it’s definitely not about being passive, timid or cautious.

Christina’s exhortation is well-timed. If you’ve been following the news this week, you probably know that shortly after midnight on February 7th, AOL announced that it had purchased The Huffington Post and the two companies will now merge into one media behemoth.

AOL is the parent company of Politics Daily, where I’ve been freelancing for the past two years along with a slew of other journalists. At the moment, the future of our publication is somewhat uncertain.

As that process sorts itself out, both practical and emotional factors come into play. I’ll have more to say about the emotional side of things some other time. On the practical end, however, the sudden, overnight upheaval at Politics Daily is a fresh reminder that freelancing is an inherently unstable endeavor, especially in the current economy.

Which means that in order to survive, you really need to be…well, enterprising. Here are five ways freelancers can be enterprising in their careers:

1. Diversify Your Projects. There are lots of reasons to take on different kinds of projects as a freelancer. It keeps you fresh. You learn new skills. You increase your chances of getting more work. But in today’s economy, it’s also a necessity. Relying on a steady gig is great…until it’s no longer there. So by all means get out there and expand your portfolio. It hedges against risk…and you might just discover something new that you love.

2. Exploit Your Network. One way to diversify your skill set is to draw on contacts you have in other parts of your life to drum up new business ideas. Through a casual acquaintance at my daughter’s school, I landed a gig last week writing about home improvement for a magazine targeted at retired people. What did I know about the Small Office Home Office (that’s SOHO to me and you) before I started? Zip. But I learned. And now they’ll likely ask me to do more. In a similar vein, the other day I was working in the cafe attached to my yoga studio when I struck up a conversation with the owner. Afterwards, it occurred to me that he might be interested in advertising on my new blog once it’s up and running. And so on…

3. Experiment. And while you’re at it, try something completely new. Career guru Marci Alboher recommends taking an inventory of your skills and talents to devise a list of potential paths you might pursue. If you teach, write or consult. If you write, teach. Etc., etc. I’ve recently signed on to teach a series of journalism workshops to secondary school (high school) students around London. That in turn led to an offer to teach adults in a continuing education program. A freelance consultant friend of mine who normally analyzes political risk for a living is working with a programmer to launch a new company. Experimentation is crucial to growth. And it will also sharpen your core skills.

4. Protect Your Assets. In what would now appear to be a particularly prescient post I wrote a few weeks back, I talked about the importance of backing up your files, especially if most of your work is Online. And that’s because while it’s generally true that things live forever on the internet, plenty of publications will  – without warning – decide to yank your URLs and not link to them anymore. So yesterday – while monitoring the fate of Julian Assange – I went back and made PDFs of all of my Politics Daily articles…just in case.

5. Carry on. Change is distracting…and can be debilitating. So unless and until you know what’s coming next, the best thing you can do is to carry on with your work. In my case that means that all week long, I’ve kept pitching and I’ve kept writing. Because, to paraphrase a colleague, “We ain’t dead yet.” To wit?

Here’s my latest on the Berlusconi sex scandal.

Enjoy.

Image: My Online Business Card by Michael Kwan via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Concrete Steps Towards Career Change

January 12, 2011

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

“I don’t want to end my life,” a friend told me recently. “I just want to exit it. Sneak out the back door when no one’s looking.”

She was talking about her job – which she hates – and her career more generally, which she’s (clearly) ready to leave.

But undertaking a major career shift can be daunting…and terrifying. And many of us – faced with the sheer enormity of it all – opt to remain where we are, rather than to embark on a project of this magnitude.

If you’d like to shift gears professionally – but can’t quite summon the energy to begin that process – here are five concrete steps to launch that process:

1. Normalize it. LifeTwo, a leading career counseling organization, reports that their prior estimate of three careers in a lifetime is now in the process of increasing to as many as seven careers. Moreover, here are some additional statistics that should make you feel at home: According to a Gallup poll, over 60% of workers are not truly engaged in what they do, and the same percentage would change careers if they could. Finally, changing jobs frequently may even be an advantage. According to career blogger Penelope Trunk, it also keeps you fresh and passionate about your career.

2. Reconceptualize it. I got a holiday card from an old friend telling me about his new career as a psycho-therapist. Prior to that, he’d been in the arts as well as the construction industries. As he put it: “I am becoming increasingly comfortable with seeing my professional life as a series of explorations rather than Wall Street Journal-worthy profiles.” I’ve written before about the concept of kaleidoscope careers, a by-product both of the dot-com economy which threw traditional career trajectories out the window, as well as the reality of women returning to the workforce after having children. Under the kaleidoscope model, having a rich, diverse professional background may be a positive in today’s economy.

3. Read a Self-Help book. If you have the resources with which to consult a professional career counsellor, by all means, do it. But if you can’t afford that, I’m a big (converted!) believer in self-help books for career change. When I moved out of academia into journalism (and beyond), I read two books that were not just useful, but essential, for my professional reinvention. And the nice thing about those transitions was that they cost me less than 20 bucks-not bad, eh?

4. Apply For A Job. This may sound counter-intuitive as most people (myself included) would counsel you to first figure out what you like and what you’re good at before thinking concretely about career categories broadly defined, let alone jobs. But once you’ve given it some thought and have narrowed down your potential career trajectories to a handful of possibilities, take a whirl at applying for a job that sounds like it might be right for you. The chances are almost zero that you’ll get it. But in putting yourself down on paper – and providing a narrative of yourself for this particular job – you’ll gain some insight into who you are professionally. Re-imagining yourself in this way will also give you more self-confidence going forward.

5. Look at job boards. One way to spark your imagination about the kinds of things you might do with your particular skill set and area of substantive interest is to skim job boards in your chosen field. You should of course do this once you’re actually doing a proper “job hunt” (as opposed to a “career hunt.”) But it’s also useful to do this on occasion early on in the process. You’ll be amazed at the kinds of real-life jobs that pop up that you’ve never even thought about but which might suit you perfectly. Two sites I’m particularly fond of are Idealist (for the non-profit sector) and Journalism Jobs. But it’s a big, wide world out there and job boards abound in all sorts of professions.

Go get em’!

Image: Job seekers destination by Newton Free Library via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.


Christmas Gift Recommendation: Tim Minchin DVD

December 16, 2010

My husband and I went to a concert Tuesday night. It was a belated celebration of his birthday, which falls in July.

The reason we waited so long to celebrate isn’t that we were too busy back in the Summer or couldn’t manage to drag ourselves out for dinner. (That does happen sometimes, but it rarely takes five months to rectify.)

No.  The reason we waited five months is that right about the time that I was going to buy him a present, I got an email announcing that our very favorite stand up comic – make that really the *only* stand up comic we’ve ever listened to properly – was coming to London for a live performance at the O2 arena.

So I immediately booked the tickets and then ran out and bought a CD of said comic for my husband as a sort of “place holder” birthday gift, in anticipation of the real thing.

The comic’s name? He’s called Tim Minchin. He’s a bare-footed, mascara-wearing, red-haired Australian. And here’s the kicker:  he’s also a singer-songwriter and piano player. So about 90% of his act are his songs, with a few jokes and stories thrown in here and there.

And he is brilliant:  funny, irreverent, profane, absurd and just a little bit mad.

We first saw Minchin on the erstwhile Jonathan Ross show, which was – until last summer – the top late night talk show here in the U.K. And we knew right away that he was the guy for us. (I mean c’mon…when you love musical theatre as much as I do, the prospect of having someone *sing* their jokes to you is just way too appealing…)

There’s something really exciting about going to hear a performer you love live, even – perhaps especially – when you don’t…um…get out all that much anymore. (BTW? I’d say the average age in the arena last night was late 20s. When a grey haired couple walked in, I practically ran over and embraced them.)

What I like most about Minchin – apart from his hysterical lyrics – is the unadulterated joy he seems to take from his work. He really looks like he’s having a ball up there on stage, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

More importantly, when you watch Minchin perform – and much like another fave of mine whom I’ve also seen live, the writer and singer/song-writer Garrison Keillor – you get the sense that this oddball decided early on in life that he wasn’t going to give a toss what other people thought about him. He was going to choose a path – in this case, playing the piano bare-footed – that worked for him. And if he looked and sounded weird, so be it. He would be true to himself.

I don’t know about you, but to me that’s what it’s all about.

So if you’re still wondering what on earth to get that special someone for Christmas this year, let me make a suggestion: a Tim Minchin DVD.

Have a listen. And enjoy!

Image: Tim Minchin Nine Lessons and Carols For Godless People by nadworks via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Manage Conflict Effectively

December 8, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I think we’ve all been in a situation where something goes wrong – with a colleague, with a friend, with a family member – and our first inclination is to kick or scream or throw things, or just open the window and yell “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” (Oh, sorry. Is that just me?)

But then cooler heads prevail and we realize that we actually need to manage the conflict, rather than just vent.

Here are five suggestions for how to manage conflict effectively:

1. Call, don’t write. A friend of mine who works in corporate America once told me that one of the very first things she learned at her job was that the minute you have a professional conflict with someone, you pick up the phone. Never, ever email. And that’s because – according to her at least – there’s greater room for misinterpretation when you write something, whereas in speech you can be more direct. As a writer, my instinct is *always* to write to people when there’s potential discord because I feel I can control the message better. But ever since she told me that, I’ve reconsidered. The other reason, of course – and pace the recent WikiLeaks scandal – is that once you put something in writing, it lives on ad infinitum. And then it can come back to haunt you.

2. If you must write, assume everyone is reading it. Which brings me to point two. For me, the potential perils of email were really brought home this past summer, when my Politics Daily colleague Andrew Cohen wrote a much-trafficked love letter to his ex on our news site entitled “On Her Wedding Day: Saying Things Left Unsaid.” My colleague Lizzie Skurnick then published a response to Andrew’s post entitled “How Not To Congratulate Your Ex On Her Wedding Day.” And then some emails ensued between the two of them which led to this and this. (If you aren’t cringing by now, you should be.)

3. Write an email, but don’t send it. I was once offered a job when I was first on the academic job market which I turned down – albeit with some remorse. And I felt so badly about turning it down that I composed this incredibly long, heartfelt explanation to the Department Chair. And then I threw it away. Because when I woke up the next morning, I realized that the letter was really written for me, rather than for him. In a similar vein, I’ve taken lately to writing out long emails to people I’m angry with and then not publishing them. As a writer, putting my thoughts down on the page helps me to express and even clarify my feelings, but without experiencing any of the blowback discussed in point #2.

4. Try to see it through their eyes. I got an email the other day that really irritated me. It was condescending. It was territorial. And it was bitchy. Or at least so I thought the first time I read it through. And I spent a good deal of the night composing a response (in my head) that I seriously debated sending to this person, despite my advice in #3. But when I came downstairs the next morning, I re-read the email and decided that – even though I was pretty sure that my initial reaction was justified – there was conceivably another way to read said email that put it in a more favorable light. And so – taking Gretchen Rubin’s maxim – “act the way we want to feel”  – to heart, I willed myself to reinterpret the original email as more benign so that I, too, could feel more positively towards this person. And then I just ignored it.

5. Write a letter. This may sound like it contradicts point #1 – and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it in a professional setting. But sometimes I think that writing a good, old-fashioned letter can go a long way towards smoothing over differences between friends and family. For starters, in an internet age, everyone appreciates that letter-writing has gone the way of the horse and buggy. So when people take the time to actually write down their thoughts – with a pen! – it shows how much they matter to you. Second, while most people like their emails short and digestible, it’s O.K. to write a long letter and to really elaborate on what you’re feeling. I once did this with a friend and it really saved our friendship.

How about you? What strategies do you employ to manage conflict?

Image: Writing Samples: Parker 75 by churl via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Prep A TV Interview

December 1, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve done two TV interviews in the past month. The first was with the Russian Television News Network about the United States trade embargo against Cuba. The second – which airs later this week – was with Al Jazeera (English) on The Listening Post, a program about the media. (We talked about Tony Blair and George W. Bush’s memoirs – watch it here – the segment begins around 12:20.)

After just two brief TV appearances – (and by brief, I mean brief…if you blink, you’ll miss me on the Russian one), I would hardly call myself an expert on media appearances. I should also note that both of these interviews were done in my own home – one on Skype, and one in my living room – so they were less anxiety-inducing than the full-on studio interview.

Still, I did learn a lot from these two experiences, and while those lessons are fresh, I thought that I’d share them:

1. Pick your outfit out beforehand. One of the great joys of being a freelance writer is that you can – should you choose – sit around all days in your pajamas. But that turns out to be a bit of a liability when you need to sound like an authority on something. Before moving to London four years ago, I either tossed out or placed in storage most of my proper, authority-conferring work suits. So when it came time for the interview in my living room, I really didn’t have much to go on. As a result, I spent a lot of last-minute energy – when I should have been thinking Big Thoughts (capital B, capital T) – trying to see if I could still squeeze into a slate grey jacket I bought on impulse last year (thinking that some day I might be called upon to have Big Thoughts.) Turns out that I could – and I threw on a set of pearls to add that je ne sais quoi element of gravitas. But the point is that I could have saved myself a lot of angst if I’d done all of this the night before.

2. Have some sound bites ready, but don’t try to memorize. Or, as Urban Muse puts it, prepare, but don’t over-prepare. I learned this lesson during the Cuba interview. Earlier in the summer – (which is presumably why Russian Television contacted me to do this) – I’d written a piece for Politics Daily about why it was time to lift the Cuba embargo. The piece contained all sorts of data, which was a terrific way to back up my arguments. But in preparing for the interview, I felt like I needed to have mastered ALL of that data, rather than just selectively picking out a few key sound bites to back up my points. Turns out, you don’t. Trying to remember obscure pieces of data just makes you nervous, and you don’t want to look nervous on camera. It’s much better to just choose a few big ideas and go with those. People can look up the data themselves.

3. Be sure to give them your title before you start. If you are working for a publication/news outlet/company/university and want that affiliation to be mentioned on air, be sure that you do this up front. Never assume that whoever is interviewing you will know how to identify you, especially if you publish under multiple names. They won’t. This is such an easy thing to fix and yet, so easy to miss. Let it be the very first thing you utter.

4. Remind yourself to slow down. I actually learned this when I worked in radio. The very, very last thing I’d do before I read a commentary on air was to remind myself to slow down. In fact, I’d write the words “SLOW” at the top of the script, just in case I forgot. The same goes for television. When you’re nervous, you tend naturally to speed up. So unless you have unnaturally slow speech (and some people do), be sure to take a deep breath right before you begin and slow down. Among other things, it will help you to relax.

5. Remember that it’s OK not to know something. This is an addendum to (2). In the middle of the Tony Blair interview, the presenter asked me a question about something I hadn’t been aware of. I tried to answer it to the best of my ability, but had to confess, ultimately, that I really didn’t know the answer. Turns out, that was perfectly fine. The piece was edited, so they just left that bit out and focused elsewhere. Of course, had this been a live talk show, that might have been problematic. But even then, I think you look far better admitting when you don’t know something (and showing what you do know) than faking it. Tough lesson for a control freak, but there it is.

How about you? Have you ever been on television and if so, what did you learn?

Image: NTV7’s The Breakfast Show – Attentive by The Instant Classic via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Why I Joined A Writing Group

November 9, 2010

I’ve started a writing group. We met for the first time last night for an organizational meeting.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Back when I stepped down from the PTA (a full month and a half ago!), I vowed that I’d take a break from organizing things. So much for that.

But this is different. First of all, it’s only five people. And second of all – unlike the PTA, which was loads of fun but fundamentally about raising money for a cause – this one’s about me. I’m doing it for precisely the same reason that I encouraged all of you to join a club this Autumn: pursuing hobbies in adulthood is fun.

Of course, I’m not only doing it because it’s fun. I’m also doing it because I think that it’s going to be worthwhile professionally. Why is that?

For starters, the people in the group aren’t close friends. I know all of them socially, but what links me to them first and foremost is that we all share an interest in writing. (Most of us are interested in pursuing fiction within the confines of this group, though there’s one TV/Film writer.)

And that means that while it’s a friendly crowd, we’re not there to chit-chat about our lives. We’re there to get feedback on our work. So unlike, say, a book club, which is – at the end of the day – a fundamentally social experience, this club feels more serious. And that suits me just fine right now.

I’m also joining this group because I think that as a writer, working across genres really helps you to stay fresh. You exercise different parts of your brain. You get out of your comfort zone. You keep yourself from getting bored. I was thinking about this yesterday when I happened to be working on two different projects that took me away from my ordinary blogging duties. One was a travel piece and the other was an interview that I did for a commercial outlet. At the end of the day, I felt really refreshed. And I think that’s because I stepped away from my routine. So I’m hoping that by adding some fiction writing back into the mix, I’ll continue to keep myself crisp as a writer.

But mostly I’m doing this because I need to confront the beast. (That would be my novel…you know, the proverbial one that sits in a drawer somewhere, only to be very occasionally dusted off and sent out to greet the world?) It’s time for a fourth down, kick-0r-stick moment with that sucker. (Forgive the cheesy football analogies. I think we all know that sports isn’t my thing.) Either I’m going to go back to the drawing board, and use this writing group as way to workshop the hell out of that thing…or I’m going to have a fancy new footrest as I embark on some new ideas. Either way, it’s time to make a move.

Wish me luck.

How do you keep yourself fresh at work?

*****

For those who are interested, here’s a piece I wrote for Politics Daily on how some people in Germany seem to be forgetting the Holocaust.

Image: Writing Challenge by Starbuck Guy via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.