February 16, 2013
Writing is a solitary enterprise, which may explain the vast number of organizations dedicated to the craft. Should you join one or more? Maybe. Some writers enjoy, or even crave, the occasional company of kindred souls. Others feel no need to engage.
My experiences have been both rewarding and frustrating.
On one hand, I have met fascinating people, picked up job leads, and learned skills that make me more profitable.
On the other, some groups are more inclusive than others. Some people are downright catty. I once engaged in getting-to-know you conversation with another attendee at a gathering of journalists. In so doing, I mentioned I had freelanced for the Chicago Tribune for more than 20 years. “Boy, you’re in a rut, aren’t you?” she exclaimed. Her remark stung–I’m proud of my long-time association with the newspaper. That’s not the only reason I shortened my relationship with that organization, but it is indicative.
Different writing groups have different objectives and formats. To help you find a compatible match, here is a rundown on the various types:
* Critique groups read your work and then offer commentary and advice. Groups usually are small and meet at homes, coffee shops or libraries. You can also find critique groups online.
* Niche groups serve writers of specific genres. If your primary interest is romantic novels, for example, you may find Romance Writers of America to be more relevant than a group of generalists or nonfiction writers. Other niche organizations are the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the National Association of Real Estate Editors.
* Professional journalism organizations often provide career development programs, networking opportunities and conferences. They sometimes sponsor service programs such as an annual communications contest for high schools or scholarships for college students. Some professional groups, such as the American Society of Journalists and Authors, have qualifying standards for new members.
* Accountability groups get down to business. Members set goals, say, sending 5 query letters each week or finishing to more chapters, before the next meeting.
* Create your own group. My favorite writing group is an assemblage of remarkable women who have become some of my dearest friends. Most of us met in a writing class at a local community college, and we decided to stay in touch. A few came along later. At first we operated as an accountability group. Now we mostly keep up on Facebook, but still get together for a pitch-in dinner once a year. We cheer each other on in all endeavors, whether a hard-won assignment, a new boyfriend or a health crisis.
* Business networking groups. When you join the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary or other community organization, you’ll be one of the few writers, perhaps the only one. Other members will be more likely to call on you rather than someone they don’t know to write their brochures, press releases and website copy. My book co-author, Jackie Walker, found me by looking up writers in the member directory of Fashion Group International, a group we both belong to.
Before you sign up, give thought to what you can give. The success of any group depends on the willingness of its members to participate in meetings, serve on committees and ultimately take leadership positions. What you get is proportional to what you put in.
I leave you with another story: A writer friend once served on the board of a professional communications organization. Years later her marriage broke up and she realized she needed to trade her freelancing lifestyle for the security of full-time employment. Another board member from that term tipped her off to an upcoming editorial opening at her company. My friend got the job before it was ever posted to the public.
January 10, 2013
Cold water doesn’t have to dampen your snorkeling or diving experience. A wetsuit will keep you warm. It also will ward off sun, scrapes and stings, and make you more buoyant.
Dive shops rent wetsuits, and tour operators often provide them for guests. Buy your own to get a better fit and to reduce the ick of wearing a used garment.
Before you take the plunge, consider:
* Action. Wetsuits come in a variety of styles and thicknesses. Some are better for one sport or another. Thicker suits are warmer but more restrictive. That’s okay for divers, whose underwater movements are slow but calculated. Surfers need to stay agile. Snorkelers don’t need the same thermal protection as divers because they hang out near the warmer surface.
* Style. Wetsuits are made from neoprene, a synthetic rubber that is shot full of tiny air bubbles. Full-length suits extend to wrists and ankles. Shorties have short sleeves and knee-length pants. Farmer Johns (or Janes) are similar to overalls–wear them alone for paddling and wading, or with a jacket for diving. A rash guard is a lightweight polyester shirt worn alone for sun protection or layered under a wetsuit to add warmth.
Other features: Hoods, knee and seat pads, ankle and wrist zippers.
* Thickness. Wetsuits are described by the thickness of the neoprene, usually in millimeters. A 6mm wetsuit, for example, is 1/4-inch thick. Some wetsuits have two numbers, such as 5/4mm. The first number is the thickness of the torso, and the second number is the thickness of the limbs. The torso part will always be thicker because that’s where you need the most warmth. Remember, the thicker the suit, the more space it will consume in your suitcase.
You’ll find plenty of charts that specify certain thicknesses for certain water temperatures, but they can’t account for a particular day’s wind conditions or your personal tolerance for cold. If you’re diving in warm water, you might be cozy in a shortie while your partner shivers in anything thinner than a full-length 5mm. Caps, booties and other accessories provide extra warmth and protection.
I’m a cold-water sissy, but I’m fine to snorkel wearing a shortie and a cap.
* Fit. Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water between you and the suit. Your body naturally heats the water, which acts as insulation. Gently pull the wetsuit on over your swimwear like you would a pair of pantyhose. It should fit snugly with no bagging. If too much water creeps inside, it won’t get warm. Many wetsuits zip up the back, which takes a little practice to manipulate.
* Cost. An inexpensive shortie starts around $60. Good quality full-length wetsuits run between $200 and $700, depending on features. Custom fits and alterations are extra.
December 31, 2012
When traveling the interstate highways, dining choices are pretty much limited to fast-food franchises and truck stops. We prefer to off-ramp toward small towns in search of eateries that cater to local folk. That’s how we found Clauss Bakery & Cafe in Rensselaer, Indiana, about mid-way between Chicago and Indianapolis. It’s a route we drive a few times a year.
As you head into town on Washington Street, Clauss’ storefront is on the main square across from the courthouse. The interior is reminiscent of a farmhouse kitchen, with linoleum floors, laminated tabletops and the comforting aroma of fresh bread. The bakery cases near the front door are filled with sweet temptations, practically insuring you won’t resist taking home a treat or two.
The menu is comprised of light fare, mostly sandwiches, soups and pastries. Daily specials are handwritten on a whiteboard. At noon, there’s a salad bar, and on Thursdays, a baked potato bar. Bakery selections include bread, dinner rolls, cookies, cakes and pie. Soup and pulled pork are available in bulk. Everything is made daily for eating in or for carrying out. Prices are very reasonable–sandwiches are in the $5 range.
The bakery, a town mainstay for decades, was struggling back in December 2004 when Rex and Tammy Clauss decided to buy it. Rex had been working in the insurance industry and was burned out. They didn’t have any experience running a bakery, but no matter. They hired a former employee to teach them.
These days Rex does all the baking. He also makes a tangy vegetable beef soup on Fridays. He starts at midnight and works until dawn, when he goes home to get a little sleep. Then he returns to greet the day’s customers. Tammy keeps the books, and she also decorates wedding and graduation cakes.
The hours are hard, but the customers are wonderful, Tammy told us during a recent visit. Some even keep Rex company during his overnight shifts. Insomniacs are always welcomed with coffee and a chat.
My favorites: Egg salad on white bread followed by coconut cream pie. And another pie to go.
Hours: Weekdays 5 a.m.-2 p.m.; Saturday 5 a.m.-11 a.m.
Clauss Bakery and Cafe
110 W. Washington Street
Rensselaer, Indiana 47978
November 22, 2012
A favorite pastime in my hometown is strolling along village streets and admiring the stately Victorians, post WWII ranches and modern-day mansions. But a garden walk invites visitors beyond the sidewalks and into back yards that have been meticulously groomed into fantasy worlds.
At this year’s Glen Ellyn Garden Walk, a vintage trolley transported ticket-holders to seven homeowner gardens. They ranged in size from sprawling to compact, and in ambiance from elegant to whimsical. One back yard was so shallow, the landscaping unfurled upward–with a dramatic two-story waterfall–instead of out.
First on the list was the Smith garden, where outdoor lounging and dining spaces are delineated by a meandering stream and boulder-rimmed koi pond. The small gingerbread house beyond disguises the potting shed. Homeowner John Smith, a furniture maker, fashioned it from a former chicken coop. That part of town used to be a farm, he told his guests.
Behind the Koral home is an 800-square-foot potager, or “kitchen garden,” where vegetables, herbs and cutting flowers are grown for the family. At the rear of the deep lot is a butterfly garden, bordered by a ring of inverted wine bottles. Tina Koral passed out a list of plantings with both common and botanical names as well as her personal philosophies: Use native plants as much as possible. Try to support wildlife. Never use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Grow organic products and donate the surplus to local food pantries.
Rare in suburbia is the Johnsons’ 4th-floor condominium rooftop garden, which captures distant views of the Chicago skyline. Multiple containers of blossom and green–some sheltered by a pergola, some receiving direct sunlight, often in groupings–soften the functions of outdoor kitchen, bar and hearth.
Inspiration abounds: One gardener collects the many pine cones from her towering evergreens to use as mulch. The Browns eliminated mowing chores by transforming the entire back yard into a model train set-up. And Debbie Helledy turned her front yard into a fairy garden decked with tiny figurines, novelties and glitter. Come back at Christmas when she has the interior decorated for the holidays, she said. We will.
Peruse the pages of any home decor magazine, and you will be transported to a rarified universe of luxury mansions and manors.
Marc Thee is one of the designers who create these stunning environments.
His company, Marc-Michaels Interior Design in Winter Park, Florida, specializes in high-end residential and commercial design–even yachts. They twice have been named among Architectural Digest’s “100 Top Designers in the World” and featured in dozens of publications.
Recently I had a fabulous meeting with Marc at the Pump Room in Chicago. Considering the transformative nature of Marc’s work, this restaurant was a reflective choice. The Pump Room underwent its own successful transformation: from Old Hollywood-style celebrity hangout to an equally popular modern, inviting “farm to table” dining experience. And Marc is charming and hunky.
Well, Marc understands that most of us live in “normal” homes. He wants to share his creativity with us, too. His newest venture is AltogetherHome.com, an online melting pot of inspiration, design advice, how-to videos, and a curated catalog of furniture and accessories. Real-World Style, he calls it. He’s also launching his own product line, Marc Thee Home Collections.
Over dinner of halibut and chardonnay, Marc shared some low-cost decorating ideas:
* Dress your bed in all-white linens. Everything. As seasons and moods evolve, simply change the throw pillows and other accents. Any color, even beige, will pop out from the white background.
* Rotate your accessories–picture frames, figurines, souvenirs and the like–every few months. They’ll seem like new when they come out again.
* For a neat, attractive coffee table, follow this format: A large tray, a stack of favorite oversized books, a live plant, and a chunky candle or hurricane. Add a decorative box to hold TV remotes.
* Hang baskets inside the pantry door to keep recipes, coupons, invitations and other paper clutter away from kitchen counters.
* A single flower in a bud vase charms any space. Marc prefers orchid blossoms because they last a long time.
“And light a candle every night,” he said.
April 9, 2012
One of the most difficult challenges to building a career as a freelance writer is finding assignments. You need to keep them rolling to provide a steady income.
At the beginning of my career, I had two part-time jobs: One was a fashion copywriter position for a chic department store chain. I learned about it through a newspaper Help Wanted ad. The other was a weekly column about local fashion and beauty happenings for a suburban edition of the Chicago Tribune. Before I decided to write, I worked as a fashion coordinator, trainer, model and makeup artist. The Tribune editor asked a colleague of mine to write the column. She said she was too busy and recommended me. With those gigs, I could cover my bare expenses.
Since then I have written for dozens of editors, publications, agencies and corporations. Many turned into long-term relationships. Here are some of the ways I found them–or they found me. Perhaps they will work for you:
* Going through the Yellow Pages of the Chicago telephone directory and calling every business and enterprise that might use writers. I introduced myself and asked for an appointment to show my portfolio.
* Responding to requests for writers on journalism message boards, especially those run by professional organizations.
* Pitching story ideas to editors at writers’ conferences.
* Reading industry publications to learn about new magazines and contacting the editors. (Start-ups are tricky. Editors need to cultivate a roster of writers, but indie publishers often are underfunded. You might not get paid.)
* Telling public relations account executives who pitched me stories that I was looking for additional work. PR types know a lot about what’s going on at media outlets.
* Cold-pitching editors who don’t know me.
As you become known for producing quality work on deadline, editors and project managers will seek you out. I have gotten assignments and referrals from:
* Other freelance writers who are too busy to take on a particular assignment or who are not interested.
* Friends and acquaintances in the printing, advertising, marketing, public relations and photography industries.
* Editor-colleagues of my editors.
* Editors I have worked for who moved on to other publications.
* Editors who see my Facebook, LinkedIn and WordPress profiles.
* Former students who became editors.
* Adjunct professor colleagues who are editors in their day jobs.
* Members of networking groups I joined.
* People I’ve written about.
These measures have not worked for me, although they could for you: Touting my college and and high school newspaper experience. Neither of editorial positions carried any weight, perhaps because they were well behind me when I choose the freelance path. I have not used Craigslist, Elance or other Internet sites, but I know of writers who have been successful with them.
Where do your assignments come from? Do you have suggestions I haven’t mentioned?
February 17, 2012
Back in the days of yore, a military tattoo was the drumbeat that signaled “lights out” to British soldiers reveling in local taverns. The nightly ritual has evolved into a modern-day spectacle of music and majesty, none more renowned than the Royal Military Tattoo. The invitational event since 1950 has unfolded for three summer weeks against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle in Scotland’s Capital City. This year’s Tattoo runs from August 3-25.
The two-hour program showcases the talents of bands, drill teams, cyclists, equestrians, gunners, flag-twirlers and others from the British Commonwealth of Nations and worldwide. Bagpipers and percussionists are the mainstays, although in any given year they could be joined by the likes of Caribbean steel bands or Cossack dancers. The United States has been represented about 20 times. The collective cast of about 1,000 comes to entertain, but nearly all the performers are soldiers first–and combat-ready.
A ticket to the Tattoo was part of our 10-day package tour of Great Britain by Globus and the sole reason we chose that particular itinerary. On the night of our scheduled performance, we trudged up the narrow, cobbled incline of the Royal Mile en route to the Castle. The Esplanade, which is a stretch of asphalt leading to the drawbridge and the thousand-year history behind it, was flanked by spectator stands along three sides to create an outdoor stage roughly the size of a football field. Despite the slight drizzle, regiments of fiery torches wrapped the ancient fortress in a golden glow. No Tattoo performance has ever been cancelled, and this one wasn’t, either. We took our seats, our very tiny seats, and waited for darkness.
The first full act assembles the massed bagpipes (“pipes” for short) and drums from each participating country. After all, these are the players who started the tattoo tradition, back in the 17th and 18th centuries when British soldiers were fighting in the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. “Doe den tap toe,” in the vernacular of the time, meant “turn off the taps.” Early drummers were joined by pipers, and then flautists, and things just took off from there. To date, more than 45 countries have taken part in the Edinburgh Tattoo.
Next up are the headliners, who give new meaning to the concept of “military theater.” They mix up pomp and circumstance with pop and circus acts, and with a playlist that includes anthems, marches, jazz, lullabies and Broadway hits. We saw the Representative Band of the Border Guard of the Republic of Poland play trombity beskidzkie, instruments that are similar to alpine horns. The Imps Motorcycle Display Team, a children’s daredevil exhibition group from London, zig-zagged up and down the arena at thrilling speeds, individually and in pyramids. There were bagpipers from South Africa, Jordan and Switzerland. Highland dancers kicked and twirled to folk songs while British Army gymnasts flipped and somersaulted to can-can music. The New Zealand Army played Swan Lake, the “Get Smart” theme song and the Haka war chant. The Citadel Regimental Band and Pipes blasted When the Saints Go Marching In. Of course, they did.
After the individual countries take their turns, the massed performers return to the Esplanade. They parade and counter-parade in unison, filling every inch and corner of pavement. Only the multi-hued fantasia of uniforms, tartans, headgear and regalia revealed the diversity behind their alignment.
“This is a class act,” said Noel Fields, a former career Air Force officer from Sierra Vista, Ariz. “I thoroughly enjoyed this, especially the Poles with their monster trumpets.”
The Tattoo is the most popular event on the Scottish cultural calendar, drawing more than 200,000 spectators annually from Great Britain and beyond. Tour guide Paul Barton, who works for Globus, has escorted many of them over the past 20 years.
“The reaction from people on seeing the Tattoo is always one of how moving and spectacular it is, not least the setting,” he said. “Many people book their tours with the performance in mind, but for those who are traveling unaware, it is a huge surprise. The massed pipes and drums make one’s spine tingle!”
Regardless of who the performers are or from where they hail, each night ends the same–with a somber, emotional tribute to active and fallen soldiers everywhere. The musicians play “Auld Lang Syne,” and the audience sings along, hand in hand, swaying in time. Fireworks explode above the Castle. The sky grows dark once more, and a lone piper, high up on the battery wall, plays the haunting lament, “Sleep Dearie Sleep.”
It’s time to turn out the lights. It’s time for peace.
January 16, 2012
Two words often associated with freelance writers are “poor” and “starving.” It doesn’t have to be that way. Life is expensive, and ramen noodles and pbj soon lose any culinary charm. Many writers earn comfortable livings, some even in the six figures. Here’s my advice for becoming a career freelancer:
* Take any assignment offered. We all love bylines, but most magazines and newspapers don’t pay well. Especially not when you’re starting out. My ultimate goal was to do strictly editorial work. However, to keep the cash flowing and my rent paid, I also wrote newsletters, press releases, brochures and speeches. One of my early assignments was a press release about a new battery-operated, plastic sump pump. I got paid $50. At least I was writing.
* Find a steady side job. I tended bar and worked in a jewelry store, 20 hours a week or so. These gigs were flexible enough that I could fit them around my writing assignments. I also got health insurance. As my writing income grew, I ditched the part-time jobs.
* Always have multiple sources of income. The freelance world is volatile, and clients come and go. Years ago I made the mistake of keeping myself busy with only two clients. When one relationship went bust, I lost half my billings. It took me two years to make up the money, with several smaller clients and editors.
* Live under your means. I love great clothes and beach vacations as well as anyone, but what I love more than spending money is saving it. I’m a bargain shopper and a coupon queen. I drive a 16-year-old Toyota Corolla. I could buy another car, but this one runs just fine. Someday you’ll want to buy a home. Lenders don’t look favorably on freelancers, so you’ll need a big down-payment to get their attention. Start saving now.
* Invest in your career. You’ll find many writers groups, organizations and conferences, but most aren’t free. Some focus on professional development, and others are more social. I attend only the events that will help me make money. Networking is fine, but I’m not looking for a sorority. Visit a few groups to see which is best for you. As for getting a master’s degree, I’m lukewarm. Don’t go into debt for grad school unless you know your writing income will increase.
* Fund an Individual Retirement Account. Every year. You don’t have an employer to help finance your future, so you’ve got to do it yourself. The sooner you get started, the less money you’ll have to sock away. Give up a vacation if you must. Or sock away your side-job earnings.
* Writing is an art, but treat it like a business. That means keeping regular hours, marketing your skills and managing your time and money. My philosophy: As long as I take care of the business end, I can afford to practice my art. You can, too.
November 1, 2011
Critical Encounters is an initiative of Columbia College Chicago to stimulate conversation on socially and culturally relevant issues. This year’s theme, “Rights, Radicals and Revolutions,” looks at how the art world can create change. Here is my essay on a person who influenced me: Helen Gurley Brown. It was published in “The Columbia Chronicle.”
I grew up in a place where dreams ran small: rain for the corn crops, a win for the high school basketball team on Friday night, a blue ribbon for the dress I entered in the 4-H fair. Few women worked outside the home. If anything, they were teachers or nurses or secretaries. My father resisted, but my mother got hired as a typist, so I could go to college. That’s where I discovered both “Cosmopolitan” magazine and the women’s movement. These entities aren’t as opposing as they might seem.
My radical, Helen Gurley Brown, was the long-time editor-in-chief of “Cosmo,” as the publication is affectionately known to readers. But she didn’t start out that way. She spent many years as a secretary and a copywriter before authoring the then-sensational and best-selling “Sex and the Single Girl” in 1962. Three years later she took the helm of “Cosmopolitan,” and she steered it for 32 years.
Helen Gurley Brown, who married when she was 37, celebrated women and the single lifestyle. She urged us to pursue big careers, to be financially independent, and to enjoy sex and lots of it–but only when we chose to and when fully protected. She championed birth control when it was inadequate and abortion before it was legal. She promoted inner strength and outer beauty. Unlike her bra-burning contemporaries and often scorned by them, she delivered her message of freedom and choice while dressed in Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses and high-heeled pumps. And no one from my generation will forget the infamous nude centerfold of actor and heart-throb Burt Reynolds, with one hand delicately draped in front of his delicates.
The magazine for many years was my personal instruction manual in both life and eyeliner application. When I launched my career as an independent journalist, I took its encouragement to heart. Yes, you can do this, it said, issue after issue. I came to believe.
In more ways than one, my life has paralleled that of my radical. I, too, was a secretary and a copywriter. I went on to write magazine and newspaper features, and have been published in dozens of national and regional consumer, trade, association and special interest publications. I marched for abortion rights in Washington, D.C., with the National Organization for Women. I compiled a stock portfolio and bought a sports car. Then I got married.
I wear stilettos.
July 7, 2011
“Beer so good it deserves a wine glass.”–Chef Tom from Mamma Mia! Pizza Beer
Tom Seefurth of St. Charles, Illinois, was a long-time hobby brewer who often experimented with eclectic flavorings such as curry and oatmeal-raisin. He gravitated toward what he calls “lawn-mower beer,” the kind of quick, cold kick you crave on a hot summer day after cutting the grass. But then, a garden overrun with tomatoes and herbs gave him an idea: a beer that paired with Italian food, especially pizza. The result is Mamma Mia! Pizza Beer, a light golden ale that is subtly reminiscent of your favorite trattoria.
Because the recipe includes many of the same spices found in Italian cuisine, pizza beer complements both red and white sauces, says Tom, who adopted the moniker, “Chef Tom.”
The brewmeister made the first batches in the same place he displays his extensive collection of beer cans and bar memorabilia: his garage. After winning a couple of regional brewing competitions, he and Athena–his wife and the “Mamma Mia” of the duo–went into business. They found a commercial brewer and hit the market. Mamma Mia! Pizza Beer is now poured in restaurants and sold through retailers nationwide. It’s generating a lot of buzz, if you’ll excuse the pun. Jay Leno has joked about pizza beer on late-night, and the producers of the reality show for entrepreneurs, “Shark Tank,” have invited the Seefurths to compete for big-time funding. They’re also being featured by the Food Network Magazine this fall and on its new television show, “Crave.”
Pizza Beer is concocted with chopped tomatoes, garlic, basil and oregano thrown into the mash. Chef Tom also tosses in a whole Margherita pizza, sans cheese and oil “for good luck.” The mixture is boiled and filtered, seasoned with spices and hops, and filtered again and again to remove any residue. You won’t find any chunks or pieces, just a clear amber refreshment that sends you yearning for the Trevi Fountain. (Did I tell you that I’ll be visiting the Trevi Fountain in August? Just an aside.)
Chef Tom and Mamma Mia spend many a weekend doing tastings and demonstrations. They were asked so many times, “Where’s the pizza?”, that they complied. They created a line of food products, including pizza crust and bread mix plus gluten-free versions, under the label, “Pizza Beer Company.” They’re constantly developing new recipes that use pizza beer as an ingredient. How about chicken wraps or marinated tilapia?