Shilling for Putin: On Op-eds and Ethics

A few weeks ago, an op-ed about Syria by Vladmir Putin ran in the New York Times. Actually, a number of pro-Russia op-eds have run in publications like the Huffington Post and over the past several years. All of this publicity is no coincidence, of course, and Pro Publica ran an article the same day as Putin’s op-ed about the PR machine behind Russia.

While reporter Justin Elliot said the NY Times piece was pretty transparent, he said some of the other op-eds were more problematic in that they were signed by third parties (academics, businesspeople, etc.), and it was less clear to readers that the pieces were placed by PR firm Ketchum on behalf of the Russian government.

I find the whole subject fascinating for a number of reasons. First is the obvious…Can you imagine being on the PR team behind the Russian government? I’ve written about the battle between the need to pay the bills and the need to be principled before, and I’m pretty sure I’d say “thanks, but no thanks” to a government that can boast a Tier 3 rating on the Trafficking in Persons report as just one sign of its disdain for human rights.

The hubbub is also interesting to me because I do a lot of op-ed writing on behalf of nonprofits, and my name is never attached to them. Sometimes, the signatory is a nonprofit leader; other times it is an individual with a direct personal connection to a cause.

The odds that Putin wrote that NY Times piece himself are slim to none. My guess is most op-eds–at least the ones with a strong agenda–are not written by the person whose name is at the bottom. Why? Most people aren’t writers. While they may have amazing experiences and thought-provoking insights, they do not have the skills or time to share them persuasively in 700 words or less.

And then there’s the effort involved with getting an op-ed placement. It is not easy to get an op-ed or even a letter to the editor picked up by a small local newspaper, much less the New York Times.

It does help to write something beautiful and have a name like Giffords or Sacks. But if your name is unfamiliar or your cause more chronic than explosive, you’d better have a pretty moving story, and you’d better tell it well. I’ve spoken with so many knowledgable people–Sudanese refugees, victims of human trafficking, gay rights advocates, breast cancer survivors and others–who, because of language barriers, time constraints, or challenging situations can’t write their own story. Is it unethical for me to help them tell it when they are heavily involved in the process from the interview through to approval? I do my utmost to capture their voices and perspectives, and in all cases I’ve been involved with, the agenda of the organization and of the signatory are one and the same–that’s why they agree to participate. When we do get a placement, more people learn about important issues, and I can only believe that’s a good thing.

A few weeks ago, we marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There was a lot of coverage about Clarence B. Jones, MLK’s speech writer. Apparently, the speech and many others were a collaborative effort–does that make the words any less MLK’s, or any less worth saying?

Now, I’m certainly not comparing what I do with MLK and Clarence B. Jones, but it is worth noting that even MLK needed the help of a speechwriter.

Anyway, this is an ongoing conversation in my head. While I can get on my high horse about shilling for Putin, the line I’m willing to cross may be well beyond someone else’s “gone too far,” and it’s always worthwhile to consider professional ethics.

How Did I Get Here?

This summer, the New York Times is running a series of essays from their critics about “cultural first crushes,” that highlight the experiences and pivotal moments that inspired them to do what they do.

Alongside those pieces, the Times is also including some short essays from individuals who work in the creative world, whether it’s as an artist, screenwriter, arts critic, morning show host or TV marketing manager. It’s a fun series, and contributors have cited everything from elementary school art classes to Tiger Lily and a rabbit joke on The Simpsons as the inspiration for a career in the arts.

It’s an interesting exercise to ponder how and why you decided to become the professional you are–or if it’s just something you fell into out of necessity and circumstance.

I always loved words and reading, was utterly moved by grammar class and Hemingway’s perfectly concise sentences, and earnestly believed the facts should always be as straight as possible. So, this is a logical and lovely place for me, though I wouldn’t describe the road that got me here as the most direct route. There were plenty of pitstops along the way that were relevant, but not exactly right. In the end, it was desire, luck and courage that inspired me to give writing a shot. I’m really glad to be here.

How did you get there?

Don’t Quit Your Day Job (Or Get Too Big For Your Britches)


Photograph taken by Napoleon Sarony (1882)

I’m a few weeks behind in literary news, but I just read this article in The Telegraph about a recently-discovered Oscar Wilde letter that admonishes an aspiring writer, basically, not to quit his day job. 

“The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.”

I haven’t read the full 13-page letter, so I’m not entirely clear whether he’s saying you’ll be a better writer if you wait tables to fund your epic novel, or that your epic novel has a snowball’s chance in hell of enabling you to buy your daily bread. Both interpretations make sense to me, because real experiences can only enhance your writing, and being realistic can only enhance your food budget.

I would argue, though, that in today’s content obsessed world, you can make a living as a writer if you are willing to engage in unliterary pursuits to support the epic novel, or screenplay or short story collection or feature article or erotic chick lit graphic novel of your dreams. As long as you adhere to the same principles, and strive for the same level of quality and professionalism you would if given your dream assignment, there is no shame in taking on work that the writerly snob in you would like to deem unworthy.

There’s no shame in putting food on the table, either. So write the web copy, the press releases, the speeches, the grant proposals. Write them and learn! Write them and be proud! Write them and eat! Who knows, all this profitable laboring may contribute to you being the next Oscar Wilde. (Maybe, but not likely. Which is one more reason to work.)

Will Work For…Money

When it comes to paying jobs, where do you draw the line?

Most of my business comes through existing relationships: my former colleague’s new company, a neighbor’s friend’s business, an editor that moved to a different publication, subcontracting work for professional peers, etc. 

Still, like most freelancers I know, I spend a lot of time hustling. I am always trying out new ways to market myself, and have mini storefronts on more sites than I can even remember. Some of them yield work from time to time, and others have resulted in the chirp-chirp of crickets. While I do have a few specialties, I am a generalist by necessity, and hate to turn down a paying gig. Some work is definitely more challenging and more gratifying than other work, but I am always grateful for what I get, and the fact that I am a working writer most of the time. 


But, when you put yourself out there, you are bound to get some really random inquiries, and come across some interesting characters and unusual opportunities. I once had a completely demoralizing interview in which the CEO asked, “How much money do you make?” followed by, “How many children do you have?” I still get cold sweats when I think back in horror that I actually responded to these and other equally inappropriate questions. I got back at the old goat, though, by not writing a thank you note afterwards. I am woman writer, hear me roar.

There was also a non-local PR agency that started out wanting local communications, but ultimately wondered if I was available to deliver food. And the thrifty businessman who couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t work for free.

The clincher, though, was when I was offered a retainer working (in part) on behalf of a less-than-admirable government. Have you ever read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad? It’s awesome all around, but there is a disturbing but hilarious thread about Dolly, a disgraced PR queen who, out of desperation, takes a job working to improve the image of a genocidal dictator. 

For me, as it turns out, writing for violators of human rights is where I draw the line. A girl’s gotta have standards.

The Labor of Love


The freelance life is nothing if not diverse. One week I am writing about modern slavery, the next it’s celiac disease or running or business loans or Valentine’s Day gifting or cervical cancer in Latin America. I am thrilled when someone hires me to write on a defined topic because I get to learn something new, interview smart people, practice writing to different specifications and, of course, earn a paycheck. 

But it’s also a thrill to work on an idea that I dream up, get really creative and write to my own specifications (sadly, there is rarely a paycheck benefit here). The problem with these labors of love, though, is that I wantonly trample my own deadlines, and suffer no ramifications for doing so. Which means I have dozens of half-baked articles, essays, poems and pitches lurking around in my computer, wondering where the hell I went.

For the past nine months or so, I’ve been working with a fabulous designer at Big Star Creative to turn a sweet travel log compiled hastily on a whim into a beautiful little handbook about traveling to Paris with kids. And it really is beautiful, as evidenced by the image at the top of this post. But, I simply cannot seem to finish this project. There are just a few more words to eke out, a few more helpful tips to plug in and…voila…there we’ll be, getting fawned over on the pages of the NY Times travel section and very prettily guiding jaunty families through the City of Light.

What’s a deadline-driven girl to do? No, seriously. Somebody tell me. Please.


Personal Essays Are Not My Bread and Butter

In a recent post, I mentioned the heartbreak of a pitch that was almost good enough. I could write about and dissect at least ten such ideas, trying to figure out what I got right and, ultimately, what I got wrong. Was it truly just that the idea was off-base, or was it something a tad more subjective like timing or an offensive typo in my pitch email?

In most cases, I’ll never know, and maybe eventually I’ll put them all out here to be critiqued. Freelance writing is not a group endeavor, and Lord knows I could use some feedback other than what I get from the critic in my own head.

The attempt to publish personal essays is another form of self abuse I occasionally engage in. Something happens, I feel compelled to write about it, and then I want to share what I wrote with others. Only, more often than not, others do not possess the reciprocal compulsion to read it.

I can usually sweet talk my husband into reading something, but I’ve learned even my other writer friends feel a bit preyed upon after a while. So, I do my best to fine tune something, do a little homework and put it out there, hoping it’s on target for the publication I choose to submit it to. 

I’ve had some success with personal essays, first getting one published in Southern Living a while back. Another was published on a Dallas web site and, most recently, in Animal Wellness magazine. These are not gut-wrenching introspections into the tragedies of my life, but my hope is they offer some funny insights most people can relate to.

That’s what I was aiming for with an essay I wrote about my (then) four-year-old daughter and a hilarious episode that occurred during a game of Candy Land. Over the course of about a year and a half, I submitted it to (that gulp you hear is the sound of my pride being swallowed) 19 outlets. Nineteen. Ten plus nine. The first rejection I received was from a big national parenting magazine, and I actually found it promising:

Sorry, but my top editor decided to pass on this essay. We have a lot of essays in inventory already, and while I thought this one was a nice change of pace, it didn’t work. Feel free to send along other ideas (and clips, if it’s for stories other than essays).

In addition to numerous rejections of the silent variety, as well as some of the kindly but generic sort, other positive responses I got included: 

I enjoyed reading your essay; it’s a thoughtful piece with nice flashes of humor. However, I must report that we’ve decided to give it a pass, as it is not quite as fleshed out as we prefer. I wish you the best of luck placing this piece elsewhere.

We’re going to pass this time around; we felt the writing was excellent, but we tend to lean toward humor that’s just a bit more offbeat. That said, we hope you’ll try us again in the future should one of your pieces lean more that way.

This experience provides many lessons about the freelance life, of course. Lessons like:

1. There are way more fabulous essays out there than there are fabulous paying slots, so expect rejection.

2. You should not allow inevitable rejection to turn you into a tragicomic walking pity party.

3. I need to take a course in “How to find more (ideally, paying) outlets.” Although, I am three for six so far, which I guess is not so bad.

4. Constructive feedback is hard to come by, so a good writing group or very honest and well-read friend can be priceless.

5. Perseverance pays off…sometimes.

6. I agree with this wholeheartedly: “Journalism is not narcissism” 

7. Perhaps most importantly: Unless you are as poetic as, say, Sarah Hepola, as witty as, say, David Sedaris, and/or have a story as amazing as, say, Dave Eggers, you will not make a name for yourself (much less a living) writing about your misadventures, so plan your career accordingly.

Lessons aside, every essay eventually deserves to have its day in print, so I’ll keep trying. What’s the point, otherwise? Who knows, maybe the twentieth time will be the charm!

On Writing, Procrastination and Quitting Facebook

I have always been a procrastinator, and love a deadline hanging over my head, pressing me to get things done. A deadline, even a distant one, keeps me focused and organized. There’s a fair amount of guilt involved with missing a deadline, too, and  the desire to avoid it can be a useful motivator.

It’s the open-ended tasks that give me trouble. Idea generation, following up on a month-old pitch, blog posts. Things flitting around my head or scribbled down on paper that require effort, but no one but me will know or care if they don’t get accomplished. Of course, some of that can be attributed to competing priorities, both professional and personal. But far too much can be blamed solely on procrastination.

Let’s say I have five solid hours to cram in my work for the day. Two need to go to a living, breathing, paying job. But three of those precious hours can go to whatever work I choose. I have two great ideas to research and pitch, a blog to update, an essay to edit, and three articles I should read. What do I attack first? 

I’ll tell you what I attack first: personal email, Facebook, Twitter, and my disheveled desk. One and a half hours later, half of my time is gone and I barely have enough left to get a portion of one thing done. In another common scenario, I do dive into the work, but take disruptive (as opposed to productive) mini breaks when the going gets tough. Procrastination is the scourge of the freelance writing life. 

A few months ago, I decided to remove one of my biggest weaknesses from my ample supply of procrastination tactics, and quit Facebook. I did it on a whim and cold turkey one day when I found myself looking at vacation pictures of someone I’d never met…the friend of a “friend” I barely knew. That’s just sad.

Before quitting, I tried to trick myself into using Facebook like a more reasonable person might. I removed the app from my phone and made myself log in every time I visited on my work computer. At one point, my anxiety researcher husband suggested I do 10 push-ups every time I checked Facebook mindlessly. I developed really beautiful shoulders, but the treatment did little to deter my pointless and compulsive checking.

So I quit. My thought was I’d take note of the pitfalls associated with not being counted among the one billion, and provide tips on how to do it more effectively. As it turns out, though, there are very few pitfalls involved with moving out of Facebook. (Unless, perhaps, your work is really tied to it.) As for tips, I would recommend letting your friends know you’re doing it, because a few people got their feelings hurt, thinking I’d “unfriended” them. I would also set up private groups elsewhere, because I do miss the daily contact with my far-flung circles of friends.

Other than that, unhitching myself from Facebook is nothing but sweet relief. It’s like the albatross has been cut loose, or the monkey has sprung to someone else’s back. It’s freeing to not feel compelled to wish distant acquaintances a happy birthday, offer condolences for the deaths of great-great uncles, or otherwise keep up with more people than can reasonably be done with sincerity and care. With a few exceptions, I kind of like being out of the loop.

As a result, I have probably gotten back two productive hours a day. Not necessarily because I was on Facebook for two hours, but because it took me 10 minutes or so to get back into whatever I was working on each time I took those eight five-minute procrastination breaks. I’d be lying if I said I don’t procrastinate at all, but at least now it usually has some kind of value. Like comparison shopping turntables for my nephews’ Christmas present. That’s valuable right?

The Story Behind the Story: Spirit Magazine

When it comes to pitching story ideas to national magazines, “freelance writer” is really just a fancy way of saying “cold caller.” I accept this fact as part of the job, and do not take it personally when an editor sends a cursory “Thanks, but no thanks” or just ignores my pitch altogether. I get it. They didn’t ask me to send an idea,  and mine is one of hundreds hopefully lofted into their inbox on any given and already-harried day.

It’s the near-misses that will break the heart. The ones that actually do get a, “Hm, interesting. Can you flesh out the idea and send it back?” It’s like winning the lottery, one of those emails…until the editor opts out in the end. It was almost the right idea, but not quite. Moreover, it was not quite right enough for the editor to massage it into something that IS the right idea. I get that, too, though. Again…hundreds of ideas, looming deadlines, hordes of talented writers.

Recently, though, I got lucky.

I read Media Bistro’s “How to Pitch” guide (I love Media Bistro) for Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine and emailed the editor interviewed in that article. I’d pitched Spirit before without success, and thought I’d see if a personal note might help my cause (or, more realistically, completely alienate her).

The editor very kindly sent me some extra insight into pitching the magazine, and eventually I pitched an idea I thought might work. While she didn’t think it fit exactly as it was, she suggested if I tweaked it just a little so it was less feel-good service, more practical business, it could work. She connected me with Spirit’s Associate Editor Noah Bunn, who then embarked with me on a trial-and-error process to get the focus just right. 

The result of that much-appreciated partnership, “Cash in on Culture” can be found this month in Southwest seat backs nationwide, and could be read by up to 3.4 million happy flyers. Woo Hoo!

Down With Perplexity!










There’s this great passage in this great book by Joseph O’Neill. The main character, Hans, is thinking about a restaurant critic friend of his, who, he is beginning to realize, has a less-than-complete understanding of the things he writes about. It goes like this: 

“As I repeatedly went forth with him and began to understand the ignorance and contradictions and language and difficulties with which he contended, and the doubtful sources of his information and the seemingly bottomless history and darkness out of which the dishes of New York emerge, the deeper grew my suspicion that his work finally consisted of minting or perpetuating and in any event circulating misconceptions about his subject and in this way adding to the endless perplexity of the world”

Like the rest of the novel, it’s pretty much perfectly written, but it also really struck me because I think all writers should do the opposite of adding perplexity to the world (wait for it…there it is…the earnestness eye roll). Of course, some subjects are really, really complicated and some are written about even as they are unfolding, which means facts can change. But a writer’s first and biggest responsibility is to understand what the heck she’s talking about before spewing it out onto a page, and passing it off as some version of the truth. That responsibility is even greater if you call yourself a journalist. (Which is why some news outlets, as well as some bloggers really, really, really, really bug me. But that’s a post for a different day.)

There are some journalists that are so great at understanding and explaining things. I love Gina Kolata and her ability to dissect and make fascinating complex health and science news. I love listening to Nina Totenberg on NPR as she eloquently dumbs down and makes relevant uber-complicated Supreme Court cases.

All that is to say, clarity is a worthy goal for us writers. So is writing a PEN/Faulkner award for fiction winner with an endorsement from President Obama on the cover. It is within my power to achieve at least one of those goals; but I won’t say which one.