Archive | Career Advice

Slash Careers Within Writing: My New Stint at Politics Daily

As I’ve said several times before on this blog, I’m a big fan of slash careers. Having multiple professional identities is a great way to make a living as a freelancer (particularly during a recession).  It’s also a great way – especially if you’re a writer – to exercise different parts of your brain. In my case, it helps to explain why I’ve been such an avid fundraiser for my children’s school over the past few years.

But another way to keep yourself stimulated as a writer is to slash within your writing. I know a political scientist who also writes children’s songs. One of my favorite writers – Anne Lamott – has written a best-selling parenting memoir, Operating Instructions, a “how to” book on writing, Bird By Bird, as well as several novels. My guess is that there’s something about moving around within all these different genres that keeps her alive as a writer.

In that vein, I’m delighted to announce that I’ve become a contributor to a new political webzine in Washington, D.C. called Politics Daily. I’ll be writing two posts a week for their Woman Up column (where – and I quote – “big girl panties are always a fit,”) as well as occasional features.

My first feature – an interview with an international legal scholar here in the U.K. about the ongoing torture debate in the U.S. – ran on Friday. Check it out here and leave a comment if you dare! (Buyer Beware: I’m coming to learn that the comment section on political websites can be a scary place…be sure to wear your own plus-sized boxers/briefs/panties/thongs/undergarments/what-have-you if you plan on going there…).

For me, this new gig is particularly exciting because it allows me to fuse my background in politics/policy analysis and journalism back into my writing career. In the last few years, I’ve been working as a freelance writer, focusing mainly on personal essays, blogging and fiction. But before that, I worked as a producer for Chicago Public Radio. And before that, I taught political science at the University of Chicago.

So it felt great to roll up my sleeves and dive back into the sort of research, interviewing and reporting that goes into being a journalist. And 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. Above all, however, the experience confirmed for me – once again – that careers really don’t have to be linear anymore. These days, it’s all about the kaleidoscope, baby.

I’ll be sure to highlight pieces I write for Politics Daily when they are relevant to RealDelia.

In the meantime, take a moment to think about your own slash careers – real or potential. What sorts of things have you added or would you like to add to your career portfolio?

Image: Reporter’s Notebook, US Version by Nicla via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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DVD Commentaries: Why I Actually Loved "Love Actually"

I have a confession to make:  I love watching DVD commentaries.

I know. Sometimes they can be excruciating. But when you find a director who really knows how to articulate what he or she is up to, I enjoy these commentaries almost as much as the film itself. (Fortunately, my husband feels the same way.)

I got to thinking about this because last weekend, we rented Richard Curtis’ film Love Actually. If you don’t know who Richard Curtis is, he also wrote Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral. (Yes, I realize that – given my usual penchant for films about things like abortion under authoritarian rule in Romania – you might not think that romantic comedies would be up my alley. Turns out I have a soft spot for Hugh Grant. Go figure.)

I liked the film so-so. But I loved the commentary. Why?

Part of it, I think, is that I’m fascinated by the creative process. I love it when people really understand what makes them tick professionally and can convey that process to a wider audience. (In my next life, I plan to return as a career counselor. I figure that, like a cat, I’ve still got six professional lives to go…)

So when Curtis, for example, talks about why he chose a particular piece of music or why he cast Laura Linney in a film otherwise dominated by European actors or why the lighting was particularly challenging in a given scene, I feel like I’m gaining insight into not just the movie, but into the whole world of directing itself.

The other reason I like to watch commentaries is that I love to watch people who love their work. It’s so hard to figure out what you really love to do. So when I happen upon someone like Curtis, who’s clearly found his calling, I find it not just enlightening, but joyful.

It’s the same way I felt last week when I went to see Garrison Keillor perform live in London. Keillor – best known for his quirky public radio show  A Prairie Home Companion – is also a syndicated columnist and singer/songwriter. He is funny, touching, ribald and irreverent. But most importantly – whether he’s reciting a poem or singing a song or telling a story – he’s clearly having a blast. Talk about someone who’s found his niche.

So there you have it. And having now outed myself as a serial DVD commentary viewer – not to mention an abiding Garrison Keillor fan – I feel much better. I’m glad I finally cleared the air.

*****

Check out the blog Daily Routines to find out how artists, writers and other creative folk structure their days. I also enjoy By Henry Sene Yee Design, which examines the creative impulse behind book covers.

Image: DVDs! by THEMACGIRL via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Free Pimms and iPod Chairs: Why I Really Joined the PTA

Last Wednesday I found myself in an upscale, Italian furniture store called Natuzzi (pronounced, in case you’re wondering, Nah-TOOT-see). I’m not exactly the home furnishings type (though I did notice the leather chair where you can plug in your iPod and listen to it in surround sound and made a mental note to never, ever bring my husband here).

I was there because the store had generously sponsored the annual quiz night at my kids’ school and, in exchange, I was arranging for an event to be held at the store next Autumn.

I do this sort of thing quite a lot, actually. In between blog posts and article pitches and agent queries and whatever else I’m up to as a writer, I’m also frequently dashing off emails to the local bakery to see if they’ll donate a cake or nipping into the local off-license (liquor store) to see if they’ll slide us some free Pimms for our upcoming Summer fair. (Never tried Pimms? Get thee to an English pub tout de suite!)

People get involved in the PTA for a lot of different reasons. It’s a great way to make friends, to improve the resources at your kid’s school and to feel on top of what’s going on at the school.

All true.

But while I’m active in the PTA for all of those reasons, the main reason I do it is because it uses a different part of my brain.

As a writer, most of my day is spent (a) alone (b) typing and (c) in my pajamas. So when I go to a meeting or organize a project or cajole someone into donating money to the school, it’s a way to use my now dormant (but bursting at the seams) administrative gene, the one I left on the side of the road the day I left an office job (along with Karaoke night and bagel Fridays). Sigh.

Marci Alboher has a great book called One Person, Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success in which she describes the advent of what she calls “slash careers” – e.g., police officer/personal trainer or violin maker/psychologist.

The thrust of the book – which I’ll talk about some other time – is that slash careers enable people with multiple interests to realize all of their professional dreams. But having a slash career (yes, parenting counts as a slash!) is also a way to utilize different parts of your brain.

For me, then, doing the PTA is about taking my Admin side out of the garage every so often, dusting it off, and going for a whirl – though I’m sure there are many parents at the school who’d love it if I just gave that part of my personality a rest!

And, hey, whenever I get a bit too overzealous in my PTA duties, my friends offer me some Pimms and all is right with the world…

*****

The website Babble offers an arch, funny take on parenting. Read here for a tale of one woman’s reluctance to embrace the PTA, only to discover that she found it quite gratifying.

Image: Pimms No. 1 by Naughty Architect via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Kaleidoscope Careers: Uncovering Your Inner Cezanne

Soon after I started this blog, I got an email from a former colleague who was quite taken with the RealDelia concept. “Think about it,” he said. “You have so much material. I mean how many shows are there featuring ex-pat American PhD freelance essayist ex-radio producer moms?”

He was teasing me, of course (he also said that I should have called the blog “Lloyds of London,” but then advised me to save that for the reality TV show). But he does touch on a serious point. Like many people out there in today’s work force, I’ve done a lot of different things in my professional life which, combined, give me a diverse set of experiences to write about and talk about.

Lisa Belkin had a terrific article about this phenomenon in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year, in which she discussed Caroline Kennedy’s failed bid for the New York senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. However you felt about Kennedy as a candidate, Belkin’s basic point was that Kennedy may have lacked experience for the job in a linear-I’ve-been-preparing-for-this-job-all-my-life sort of way (unlike, say, Kristen Gillebrand, who eventually got the nod). But the sort of “kaleidoscope” resume that Kennedy brought to the table (e.g., lawyer, writer, fundraiser, parent) is increasingly the norm in today’s economy, 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.

Belkin’s article also reminded me of some of the arguments raised in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers. In a New Yorker article last Fall entitled “Late Bloomers: Why do we Equate Genius with Precocity?,” Gladwell – drawing on extensive research by David Galenson at the University of Chicago – points out that many of the world’s most celebrated “geniuses” – people like Paul Cezanne, to name but one – didn’t start out as geniuses right off the bat, but rather took years to culivate their talents. So it wasn’t that Cezanne was discovered late (as is sometimes erroneously thought to be the case); it’s that he simply wasn’t very good at what he did until quite late in his career. In the meantime, he was experimenting.

Taken together, I found the messages in these articles to be quite reassuring. Belkin’s article suggests that the economy may be changing in ways that rewards diversity over continuity where careers are concerned. And Gladwell’s article suggests that if you haven’t been labeled a genius by the time you’re twenty five, you’ve still got plenty of time ahead of you. In either case, the message seems to be:  experiment away…

*****

While we’re on the topic of experimentation, I took my kids to see Dan Zane and Friends today in London. Some of you may remember Zanes from his earlier career in the pop band The Del Fuegos. But he has since reinvented himself as a creator of  “homemade family music.” Haven’t seen him perform live? It’s a must…

Image: Kaleidoscope FR 5340 1907 by Lucy Nieto via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Dress for Success: Wear a Burka

My husband got an email from his boss the other morning. It said that the university where he teaches had implemented a new dress code: “No jeans. For men, ties; For women, dress demurely.”

Hmmmm.

Needless to say, the new code inspired a spate of very funny (and some outraged) emails. “Demurely?” wrote in one female colleague who’d just joined the faculty. “Isn’t that a tad 19th century?” Another (male) colleague found the new policy worryingly sexist: “I should be allowed to wear a demure dress too if I want!” The best comment, however, came from a professor who, in the interest of fairness, asked whether the school could address the “appalling” level of student dress as well. “Perhaps they could issue combs at registration?” he queried cynically.

Fortunately, before all the female professors ran out and bought their new burkas, it came to light that this had all been an April Fool’s prank. And a good one at that. It certainly had me going.

But I think  it does touch on a very sensitive issue vis one’s career: how do you dress appropriately for work, particularly in this era of business casual? What’s too casual?

I remember my first job – also at a University – where I looked like I was about 12 years old giving a lecture to 150 25-year olds each week. So every day I would don my “costume” – which was invariably some version of pants suit, heels and silk scarf – the latter tossed in to add 5 years to my youthful visage (or the equivalent in gravitas). Didn’t work very well.

I always thought it was particularly hard for women to figure this whole sartorial thing out, as we tend to both judge and be judged more harshly for what we wear. When I was teaching, for example, someone wrote on one of my course reviews that I needed “a new pair of shoes.”

“Hello? Is that really important?” I thought indignantly. “Aren’t you listening to anything I say?” Apparently not. And, upon reflection, I guess those lectures on bureaucratic reorganization were really boring…

But then I read this post by a VP at Google fretting over which footwear – Uggs or Eccos – was most appropriate for his company (Oh to be a VP at Google!) And I do remember a friend in graduate school who got a course review from one student which read: “Mike needs to lose the black socks and Docksiders.” Ouch.

Penelope Trunk, master of all things work/life related, solved the problem by hiring a stylist to help her shop. Which is one solution, if you can afford it.

I can’t. Which is why I’m happy to have finally landed a career where I wear some version of my pajamas every day and no one but the mailman ever sees me. So if we’re really meant to “dress for the job we want,” I think I’m doing really well: at my last job, I once accidentally wore my slippers to the office.

******

A great website for finding affordable/attractive office wear is The Working Closet.

Image: Woman in Pink Dress Sitting in Chair Holding Roses via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Serve them the $%!* Decaf: Life Lessons from My Summer as a Waitress

I had another Barry Manilow moment the other day – i.e. one of those times when a snippet of music or cultural reference or, in this case, specific location instantly transports you back to some signature moment in your journey towards adulthood.

An article I was reading about an art show in the United States referenced an up-scale art gallery on Eastern Long Island where I once worked as a waitress during high school. And all of a sudden I was hit by a wave of nostalgia.

I worked at this place for only three or four weeks one summer with my older sister. We worked Thursday-Sunday nights serving desserts to the clientele of the gallery. But while short lived, that job proved to be one of those searing professional experiences that stayed with me for years. Why?

Part of it was the gallery owner himself:  a high strung Manhattan transplant who tried to mask his OCD-like tendencies behind flashy shirts and purple trousers. I think he thought that running a shabby-chic, beach-side gallery would render him a mellower soul. It didn’t. Learning how to manage a mercurial boss proved to be a life-long skill I started cultivating that summer.

It was also the first time that my sister and I – separated by four years in age – became friends instead of just sisters. Having a common enemy in the form of Mr. Purple Pants really united us. I can still remember her emerging from the kitchen with a blob of whipped cream on her face, the remnants of which had been pilfered from a passing profiterole. That didn’t go down very well with our boss, but I erupted in peals of laughter. That sort of fraternal camaraderie between co-workers has been absolutely crucial to every job I’ve held since.

And, then, finally, there was waitressing itself. Someone once told me that everyone should be required to do three things in life:  wait tables, answer telephones, and I can’t remember the third – it might be working construction. There’s something about learning how to navigate the combination of a persnickety boss, demanding customers, and time sensitivity all at the same time – with, in this case, a  prima donna pastry chef thrown in for good measure – that really serves you well in whatever you go on to do next.

Turns out, my sister and I were pretty bad at waitressing. We were always getting the orders mixed up, or naively revealing to the customers that, sadly, we’d run out of regular coffee. (“Serve them the %$!* decaf!” our boss hissed while smiling unctuously at the clients). And I think we both decided that the world would be a better place without us waiting tables in it.

And yet, twenty five years later, just the mention of that gallery brought all of this flooding back to me. Which has to be a good thing, right? If nothing else, I’ve never looked at a cup of decaf quite the same way since.

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There Are Some Second Acts

A friend of mine sent me this article in the London Times from last week about second novels. It’s a story about the pressure on novelists who strike it big with their first novel – like Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Travelers Wife – to repeat this success the second time around.

The article goes on to list famous books that were spectacular second novels but which followed on barely noticed first novels – Pride and Prejudice, Ulysses, Midnight’s Children – to name a few. It also lists cursed second novels that followed on huge successes – Something Happened by Joseph Heller after Catch 22, for example, or Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier after Cold Mountain -  as well as one hit wonders that were never followed by anything at all. To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone With the Wind both fall in the last category.

As a veteran of two career changes and an aspiring novelist, I was heartened to see the list of great second novels. The length of the list and the star quality of its titles really drove home that age-old adage: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” Most of us won’t become wildly famous in the process, but if we really apply ourselves to something, we will likely improve. (As Bob Fosse expalined to an aspiring dancer in one of my all-time favorite movies, All That Jazz, “I can’t make you a great dancer. But I can make you a better dancer.”)

I keep that quotation in my head a lot. And it doesn’t apply just to writing or the creative life. With a little elbow grease, we can all get better at what we do (though if I’d written To Kill A Mockingbird I might have put down my pen and called it a day too).

Any other great second novels on your list?

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You Can Teach An Old Dog New Tricks: Ghostwriting

I just got back from yet another trip to the United States and as I trolled through my ever-burgeoning pile of unread RSS feeds, I came across the following post about ghostwriting on the blog Lisa Romeo Writes.

I regularly subscribe to a bunch of different blogs about freelance writing and I’ve probably seen at least twenty if not hundreds of job listings for ghost writers over the past twelve months alone. But until today, I never thought much about ghost writing as a possible supplemental source of income for myself.

The main reason – as Romeo notes in her introduction to the post with respect to her own experience – is that I’ve always been so preoccupied with finding and expanding my own voice that I never wanted to deviate any of that energy into someone else’s work. Perhaps because I’m feeling just a tiny bit more confident about my own voice lately or maybe it’s just the pinch of these credit-crunched times, but when I read this post I suddenly thought: Hey! I can do that! (Sorry, but you must indulge my less-than-closeted love of Broadway musicals while I quickly link to famous A Chorus Line number of same title…ah, to spend the afternoon singing lyrics from A Chorus Line…but I digress.)

Why do I mention this here?

Because when I read this writer’s account of how she got started ghost writing and why she enjoys it – i.e. finding a way to tell someone else’s story in a way that respects their unique voice- I realized that I’d not only be very good at this kind of thing, I’d actually enjoy it. I strongly believe that the two keys to a successful career are a. finding things that you like and b. finding things you are good at and then identifying where these two intersect (much harder than it sounds). And so, it suddenly occurred to me that I ought to give ghost writing a second chance.

Which I’ve been doing…all day long.

And it’s something we all should be doing – i.e., thinking about our talents and interests and where these intersect. It seems like every day now, I get another email from a friend whose company has just folded or who’s been let go or who’s just had a baby and is going to try and make it on her own, and a lot of them ask me for advice about how to get started on a new career path. And while I have loads to say on this topic, the main thing I always tell people is: figure out what you like and what you’re good at and that’s where you need to begin.

Because if this economy is going to continue on its current trajectory, we’re all going to need to be a heckuva lot more creative in thinking about our skill sets and the many possible directions in which we can take them while still being true to who we are. Myself included.

So if you’ve got that burning life story you’re just itching to tell and don’t trust yourself to tell it, drop me a line…I’m listening.

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Head Shots: The Joy of Feeling Professional

Yesterday I had some headshots taken for this blog. It was something I dreaded doing, but when the time came, I ended up having a lot of fun. Here are three reasons why:

1. It felt professional. As a writer, I spend a lot of my time sitting around in my yoga pants trying to decide if it’s *really* worthwhile blowdrying my hair because, hey, the mailman likes me just the way I am…(thank you, Billy Joel). But yesterday, I actually got off my tuchus and ambled up to the salon to get my hair cut. Given that my hair is so thin that – according to my current stylist – it resembles a new born baby’s (this is actually a step up from the haircutter who once affectionately described it as “doll’s hair”), having my hair freshly cut and styled made a world of difference to my appearance.

Before the shoot, I also painstakingly applied make up to my late-February ashen winter face. I’m not usually a make-up kinda gal, but I was once (mercifully) coached on what to do by an Aveda representative some 10 years ago and have clung to her advice shamelessly ever since.

Career blogger Penelope Trunk advises that anytime you do media, it’s essential to get yourself professionally groomed in order to be taken seriously by whoever is interviewing you (she extends the list of essentials to teeth whitening, but hair and make-up are a must). But there’s an added benefit to doing hair and make up: it also enables you to take yourself seriously as a professional, which is something creative types definitely need to do every once in awhile.

2. It got me out of my comfort zone. I’m not a terribly visual person. My husband – who is – can readily attest to this. I once famously scoped out an apartment for us in Boston and came home extolling the virtues of our new “three bedroom,” only to have him arrive a short while later and inquire as to where the third bedroom was located. The answer was…nowhere. So I felt really odd just sitting there before a photographer smiling at different angles and folding my arms in different ways and pretending that this was normal. But as the hour wore on, I found myself getting more and more into it, offering my own thoughts on the different shots and “tensing my eyebrows” (as the photographer so gracefully put it) a bit less.

3. I’m learning new skills. A big part of being a writer these days is self-promotion, especially via various social marketing tools. But to market oneself seriously, you also need to learn about – and care about – things like headshots and how you come across, visually even, to the general public. I’ll be the first to say, per point number two, that this sort of thing doesn’t come naturally to me. It feels somehow terribly self-concious. But even though I know I’ll be tempted to pass the task off to one of my more artsy friends, once that little CD of photos arrives, I’m determined to be the one who sorts through them and decides which image best represents myself. Because I need to learn how to do that. And learning new skills is part of growing up.

Watch this space!

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