Caitlin Kelly

Writer and Editor



Take Good Care of Yourself
It Takes a Village
Someone's Life
Trust Your Gut!
Getting Fired
What It Takes
When the Going
Gets Tough
Intellectual Archeology
The Best Writing
is Rewriting
Use a Dictionary
Carefully Chosen Language
Running a Home-Based Business
Quality Control
Coming Up with Ideas
Selling the Story
Paying Attention
Play Dates
Getting It
  If you're serious about your work as a journalist, and ambitious as a writer, you're going to feel pain along the way.

I've been a nationally-ranked saber fencer - a ferocious sport I took up in my mid-30s with a two-time Olympian as my coach - and it proved the best possible training for this business.

Why is being hit repeatedly with a sharp, pointed blade great prep for getting your prose into print? Because so many of the skills are the same: speed, dexterity, flexibility, anticipating your opponent's moves and parrying them.

And working through emotional discomfort and even pain.

While it doesn't leave a bruise, it's annoying as hell to wake up and find The New York Times has gotten to the same story I'm working on when I'm writing for the Sunday paper. Yes, I can better them and I have to. The same resilience and aggressiveness that allowed me to fight my way through direct elimination trials also helps me beat the most ferocious and experienced of journalistic competitors.

Stories written on staff do get cut or spiked. Stories written freelance also get killed.

It hurts. Even when you know they're right, it hurts. It's annoying to work long and hard, especially with a sense of excitement and purpose, interviewing many people who grow excited about the story as well, and never have it see the light of day. Not only do you have to manage your own disappointment and your feelings about your editor's judgement, you may have to explain to your sources what happened in a publicly-palatable version.

But there's another type of pain, and it's far more than the skin-deep drama of a wounded ego. I'm talking about people who've lost loved ones to murder or illness or accident or war or suicide, when it's your job to call them and talk to them. One long-term colleague shrugs and steels himself against others' hurt. Like some contagious illness, emotional trauma can, and does, affect the listener - you.

How do you calibrate compassion? I keep a box of Kleenex on my desk. I need it when I'm interviewing someone by phone who starts to cry, as they often do, even those willing to talk to me. I find this sort of reporting heartbreaking, yet it's also my job to keep asking questions and to keep taking notes. I have to ask the details that will make my story accurate and compelling while beating my competitors.

I simply can't afford the luxury of feeling too much pain, mid-story or later. Yet if I feel too little, I think it's time to hang up the headset. People can tell if you care, and they can tell if you don't.

Journalists thrust repeatedly into others' pain and trauma find themselves very seriously affected by it even though many of them don't know what it is. It might manifest as insomnia or nightmares or depression. They can suffer "secondary trauma" and it happens to anyone - broadcast, print, Web - who spends much time thinking about violent or graphic material. If you don't toughen into some Teflon robot (my personal fear), you'll absorb the primary trauma you're being paid to witness and chronicle.

And newsrooms aren't known for institutional compassion, so it helps me to know that others face it and how they cope. One author said he was so debilitated after writing a passage about wartime atrocities that he simply had to go lie down for a few hours.

Journalists drawn to this important work must - just as welders wear goggles and dental hygienists leave the room when they Xray your teeth -- protect their psyches. Talking to a therapist, a minister or rabbi, a good friend (but only those who can handle what you share) can all help you off-load some of the horror. The Dart Center,, is an excellent resource designed especially for journalists facing pain, theirs and others.

If you cover news and if you stay in the game for a decade or several, emotional pain will come with the job.

Don't run from it, but don't let it run you.