Let the Plan Rule 6

To recap: You’ve put your flight to Bogotá on the calendar for September 30 and by now you may have heard from the Colombian Embassy that yes, you have permission to establish a freelance news bureau in the capital. You’ve gotten a passport and enough shots to spring a puppy from the Humane Society. Now it’s time to start lining up clients. 

What Margaret and I did was open the Editor & Publisher yearbook* at the public library and write down the name and address of every newspaper editor we wanted to approach. The Washington Post was as far up the food chain as we dared venture. It had two of its own staff reporters in Africa, but one was in apartheid Johannesburg, and therefore couldn’t travel to what was called then, “black Africa.” The other was in Nairobi, three air hours or 42 difficult road hours, from the “frontline states” that Margaret and I would be covering. Most of the ones to which we intended to sell ourselves were the ones who couldn’t afford their own Africa bureaus — papers like The Dallas Times Herald, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The San Francisco Examiner, the Kansas City Star, and so on. We carefully wrote down their full mailing addresses and then prepared a neat little package to send each one. We used pocket folders; when you opened it, our resumés faced you on the left, and a few of our best clips faced you on the right. The cover letter that went into the envelopes with these packets said something like this:

Greetings: 

A new source of Africa news will be available to you starting in May.  Margaret Knox and Dan Baum, veteran reporters of The Atlanta Constitution and other newspapers, will be establishing The Africa Bureau — an independent news bureau in Harare, Zimbabwe, to cover the region for you. This will be your chance to have exclusive, non-wire copy from a turbulent but under-covered part of the world. Please look at our enclosed resumés and samples of our work. We ask for nothing in advance but your Telex number and permission to call collect if we have a story we think you might like. 

We’d like to hear from you ahead of time to discuss topics that might be of particular interest to your readers, such as communities of Africans who help constitute your city’s population, and the companies and industries in your city that do business in Africa and to which we should pay special attention. We want to make this as easy for you as possible, so if there are any technical issues related to filing copy and photos to your paper, let’s nail those down. We also will be traveling around the U.S. in March to visit future clients; might we stop by and see you, too?

Of course, today you’d be asking for email addresses instead of Telex numbers, but feel free to go ahead and crib that letter if you want to and adapt it to your purposes. We lined up about seven papers, plus National Public Radio and Mutual Radio News, this way. And damned if we didn’t get The Washington Post, too. Asking about industries and companies turned out to be useful; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for example, was interested in bauxite mining because Alcoa, based in Pittsburgh, uses a lot of bauxite to make aluminum. Permission to call collect from Africa is a big deal. Some even asked us to buy acoustic couplers — big hard-rubber cups that fit over the two ends of a phone receiver and that, when plugged into a computer, allowed us to send copy straight into a paper’s computer queue by putting atop the story a line of code that looked something like {kwky-slug{tttws, with “slug” being a one-word title for the story. This was very high-tech stuff in 1987. We wrote editors’ names, phone numbers, telex numbers, companies and industries to watch in a little hardcover Moleskine-like notebook, devoting one page to each paper, so that we’d have it all handy when it was time to file. My suggestion is that you do likewise. But do it quickly; you’re leaving on September 30.

More on equipment tomorrow.

*Editor and Publisher being the trade magazine of the newspaper-publishing industry

 

 

Let the Plan Rule 5

Let’s continue with the list of tasks you need to complete before you leave for Bogotá: 

If you don’t have a passport, get one now at the nearest post office. You’ll need to bring in a couple of passport-sized photos that you can get at Kinko’s or a camera shop, whichever is closest to you, and when you do, get four or five extras. They’re good to have with you when you go abroad. A Colombian press card might require one, as might press credentials for other countries you’ll be covering. And you might lose your passport or have it stolen and having a passport photo on hand will speed up the process of replacing it. 

As someone who had his passport stolen his first day as a freelancer in Africa — making my way by bus from Jomo Kenyatta Airport into downtown Nairobi — let me recommend a way to carry the passport, vaccination card, visas, press credentials, a credit card, and some cash: sew a little drawstring bag out of an old bandana and use a nice thick sneaker lace as the drawstring. Put your documents and cash — not too much; enough for a day, in small bills — in it and tuck it inside the waistband of your pants over your hip. Tie the ends of the drawstring firmly to a belt loop, and you’re done. Nobody can snatch it from there, and you can ascertain that you still have your trove simply by looking down and seeing the drawstring, relieving you of having to do every five minutes  the touristic self-frisk — feeling for your trove, which communicates to everybody around you exactly in which pocket it is. That’s how I lost my trove on that Nairobi airport bus — ceaselessly patting the cargo pocket of my trousers to assure myself that I still had my trove. I might as well have been saying, “Here it is, guys!”

Tying the trove to your belt will keep you, too, from falling victim to a robbery technique that befell me in Zamboanga City, the Philippines, in 1982. Someone, seeing from the outside that my wallet was in my back pocket, sliced my pocket open — presumably with a straight razor — without my noticing. Had my trove been tied to my pants and hanging inside them, I’d have felt the tug. It occurs to me now that both of these pickpocket stories — Nairobi and Zamboanga took place as I was boarding or leaving buses, and distracted by my luggage. A third pickpocketing incident, in Mexico city in 2017, happened on a Metro. Point is: be extra vigilant on public conveyances, especially if you’re distracted by gear.

Some countries require proof of vaccination against yellow fever or other maladies upon entry. This website will tell you the requirements, country by country, and also make recommendations beyond the requirements. You should check other sources, too, and if you can, find a travel-medicine clinic in your city, which will also have information. The aforementioned website offers good advice, too, on its Colombia page, about taking along mosquito netting and chemical mosquito repellent, and making sure all your standard vaccinations — tetanus, diphtheria, etc., are up to date. Have whoever gives you your shots note the shot and date on your yellow vaccination card, sign it, and stamp it to make it look as official as possible. You don’t want to get hung up at a border or airport over this, and if you’re like me you don’t want to get your shots at some flyblown clinic who knows where. 

Find out if you need malaria prophylaxis, and what kind. If a doctor recommends chloroquine, do some research to see if the strain of malaria in the places you’re going is chloroquine-resistant. Resistance to chloroquine is a byproduct of the American war in Vietnam. The U.S. Army issued its soldiers chloroquine pills to take daily, the parasite adapted to it, and resistance spread outward. This is how Margaret found herself delirious in a hospital bed in Harare.

As you start ticking things off your list — permissions, passport, vaccinations — your departure will feel more and more real. You’re on your way to Colombia to launch a career as a freelance foreign correspondent! Everybody knows it, you’re getting vaccinated for it, and nothing can stop you!

We’ll continue tomorrow with lining up clients.

 

 

 

Let the Plan Rule 4

Before we continue with the list of things you need to do before September 30 — the date you have set as departure for Bogotá to begin your career as a freelance foreign correspondent — let’s talk briefly about money. You don’t have enough of it, and you’re going to need plenty. So, as you write “Depart for Bogotá” on your calendar for September 30, say goodbye to restaurant meals, three-dollar  cups of coffee, movies, and other luxuries. It is time to start living on the bone. Cook* and make your coffee at home. You’ll save a bundle. Move in with your parents if you have to. It won’t be defeat; it will be in service to that tyrant on the calendar. Get rid of your Netflix subscription and use the time you’d otherwise spend zoning out over movies to read books and academic journal articles about Colombia and Latin America. (A good start might be Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, which is an only-occasionally-stridently Marxist analysis of Latin America since the conquest. It will give you a good feel for the essential complaint that Latin America has with Europe and the United States, a complaint that is reflected to this day in much of the region’s politics and economics.) Every time you deny yourself something — that latte, dinner at the hip new place on the corner, etc. — will be a fresh reminder that you’re leaving for Bogotá on September 30, further cementing the plan into reality.**

Stop driving your car to save money on insurance and gasoline, and get yourself a bicycle and a transit pass (if you’re lucky enough to live in a place with transit) instead. In fact, unless it’s a beloved and irreplaceable heirloom, this would be an excellent time to sell the car altogether. You can’t take it to Bogotá, storing it while you’re gone will be difficult and hard on the car itself, and by the time you come back who knows where you’ll be living? You might be a reporter for The New York Times by then, living in a city where you certainly won’t want or need a car. So ditch it, now, and put the money in a new bank account you call “Bogotá.” 

You can use that time you’re saving by not watching movies and TV shows to get your Spanish back, if you’ve ever had it, or to start studying it. I know a Dutchman who taught himself really excellent Spanish in a matter of months by using the program Rosetta Stone. But he’s a Dutchman, with that preternatural knack for languages shared by his countrymen, so don’t necessarily expect the same results. If your Spanish is already solid, as it might be since you’ve chosen Latin America as the place you want to freelance, start on Portuguese. Brazil is a newsworthy place, and reporters who speak Portuguese are rarer, and therefore more valuable, than those who speak only Spanish.

 

* If you would like some ideas about how to feed yourself cheaply — kitchen equipment you’ll need, how to shop, and some recipes, let me know at danbaum@me.com

** Remember that “leaving for Bogotá” is shorthand for whatever unlikely reality you’re trying to make happen. But, if you’re trying to get a freelance career started and have any Spanish at all, setting yourself up as a freelance correspondent in Bogotá isn’t a half-bad idea. 

Let the Plan Rule 3

You have created the tyrant who will rule your life for the next nine months* by setting your departure date for September 30. Now it’s time to make your first list of everything you need to do before that day. Again, this is only the list of everything you can think of now.  It will grow and change the more you learn.

My first list, were I planning to leave for Bogotá on September 30 to set myself up as a freelance foreign correspondent, would look something like this: 

Permissions: (call the Embassy of Colombia in Washington, DC, and ask to speak with an information officer. Ask for her email address and send her something like this:

Greetings. I am an independent U.S.-citizen reporter seeking permission from the government of Colombia to live in Bogotá as a base to report on South and Central America** for a number of U.S, newspapers, magazines, and radio-news outlets. Please find attached my resumé.***  I am affiliated with no government or media outlet; I am arranging now to work independently for several U.S. media. I will work alone and hire no locals. If possible, I would like to arrive in Bogotá on September 30, 2019 and begin work right away. To whom should I write to obtain this permission and what information will be required from me? She’ll have no idea. But she’ll be intrigued, maybe even excited, by this idea, and if you don’t hear from her in a week, email her again. If yet another week goes by, call her. 

As for the other countries in the region from which you intend to report, you have two choices: over the radar or under the radar. Over the radar means you declare your intentions to the governments of Brazil, Venezuela, Honduras, etc. and ask for a multiple-entry journalism visa. This will let you operate in the open, interview government officials, and it will generally keep you out of trouble.

Under the radar means you remain invisible to those governments, travel through the region as a tourist, and do your reporting on the sly. The advantage is, you’re less likely to be monitored, you’ll encounter less bureaucracy and you’ll generally be freer. The disadvantage is, you cannot interview government officials, and if you’re caught working as a journalist without permission, it could fall hard upon you. Read this story for a cautionary tale: https://www.ndtv.com/tamil-nadu-news/us-journalist-investigating-tamil-nadu-sterlite-plant-questioned-by-cops-1970633

When Margaret and I set up our freelance news bureau in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1987, to cover southern Africa, we obtained permission from the Zimbabwean Ministry of Information to live and work there, and only tried to get journalist visas from countries where our stories required that we interview government officials. Otherwise, we passed ourselves off simply as honeymooners. You might decide to fly under the radar in Brazil and over the radar in Venezuela. Do all you can to find out in which countries it’s worth asking for permission. How would you do that? Any hands? Yes, you in the back. Right; very good. Look at the bylines of stories from various countries in the region, call or email the paper or magazine, and ask either for the reporter’s contact information or, if the paper doesn’t want to yield it, ask the paper to pass along a message. Then ask the reporter about working in that country. Dangerous? Repressive? With whom is it worth and not worth speaking? Take careful notes and keep them on your computer. 

We’ll continue tomorrow with the pre-departure list that you have to complete quickly, because remember: prepared or not, you will be on a plane on September 30. Nothing can change that.  

*Remember: this technique of creating a tyrannical plan with a firm start date works equally well with any kind of project. Planning to move in with your sweetheart? Find a job in your field? Repaint the house? Put it on the calendar an appropriate number of months out, tell everybody about it, and bend your life to that plan. It will gradually become the reality, as fixed and immutable as the firmness of the earth, and on the appointed day it really will happen.

** It will be vaguely comforting to the government of Colombia that you intend to cover the whole region and not spend all your time examining Colombia with a microscope. In my experience, developing-world countries want attention, but not too much attention. They resent that we in the United States don’t know anything about the hemisphere we have dominated for so long, but any number of Latin American countries have jailed and/or expelled any number of foreign journalists for doing their jobs. (As Joseph Lelyveld put it in the opening of Move Your Shadowhis terrific 1985 book about apartheid South Africa, “In South Africa these days, a lot of words get spilled as the urge to be understood conflicts with urge not to be understood too well.” 

We continue with the pre-departure list tomorrow.

*** If you have no news experience, don’t include a resumé.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let the Plan Rule 2

Okay. When we left off, you’d decided you want to move to Colombia on your own to set yourself up as a freelance Latin America correspondent. First thing to do — and this is perhaps the most essential piece of advice in this entire blog — is to set a departure date and put it on your calendar. I’d put it out about nine months, maybe even a year, to be sure you can get done all things you’ll need to do, some of which you haven’t even thought of yet but you’ll come upon as you get started. So if  you make this decision today, Monday, December 31, 2018, “Depart for Bogotá” goes on the calendar on Wednesday, September 30, 2019. (Many factors can affect this date. Your little sister’s Bat Mitzvah might already be scheduled for Saturday, October 4. Your current lease might be up at the end of the previous month. Your high-school girlfriend and her new husband might be expecting a baby the weekend of October 11. Figure it all out now — ask the people who might be planning schedule-disrupting events next fall — because this magic only works if, once implementation goes on the calendar, no power on earth can move it. 

Meet your new master. This departure for Bogotá on 09/30/19 cannot be changed, cannot be denied. It is a ruthless dictator who — regardless of whatever else happens in your life — must be obeyed. You will be amazed at the power inherent in this self-hypnosis tactic once you fully convince yourself that, whatever happens, you will be on a Bogotá-bound jet on 9/30/19. Tell everybody you know,”I’m leaving for Bogotá at the end of September.”  Your departure on that date simply becomes the reality. “I wish I could be at your wedding, but I’ll have left for Bogotá by then.” “We’d better do that in August, because I’m on a plane to Bogotá at the end of September.” When they ask, “Do you have to?” say, “yes.” “But this is your own deadline, right? So if you want to change it you can.” “It’s my own deadline, right. But no, I can’t change it. Once it becomes fungible, it’s useless to me.”

Put up a whiteboard in your kitchen with the date, time, and flight number of your departure so you see it every day and even more, everybody who walks through your kitchen sees it. Then, if you fail to depart on that day, you’ll not only be letting down the tyrant and yourself, you’ll reveal yourself to everybody you know as a feckless, ineffectual sac of hot air and nobody will ever again believe anything you say. Think of this as a wedding; you’re marrying your plan, and everybody you know is standing around you smiling and dewy-eyed while you speak your vows, which means you’re not only promising your plan, you’re promising everybody there.* You can further nail this down by buying your one-way ticket now, while fares are low. This may be a time to use a travel agent with experience in Latin America rather than winging it yourself on Kayak or Expedia. If you really want to make a tyrant of your departure date, don’t buy travel insurance. You’re going. That’s that. Come hell or high water, you’re on that plane. 

Again, making a life-bending tyrant of a deadline works in all sorts of contexts: My boyfriend and I are going to move out of his mother’s house as soon as he graduates in June and we’re going to get jobs and our own place to live. Put that on the calendar for July 1, and look at it every day, and on July 1 you will find yourself in your new apartment getting dressed for your first day of work. You simply have no alternative. It’s the Plan. You have to make it happen. 

But getting back to the freelance-foreign-correspondent example, we’ll start tomorrow making lists of things you need to do before departure.

 

*Yes, you can divorce your plan like you can divorce a spouse. But then you’re breaking your vows not only to the plan, but to everybody who heard you speak them, which is everybody whom you told that you’re leaving to be a freelance foreign correspondent in Bogota on September 30, which, if you’re smart, is everybody you know. 

 

 

 

Let the Plan Rule 1

Slightly updated repeat of Friday’s post. New post coming soon.

Okay, say you’re inspired by this post about launching a freelance career by going abroad and setting yourself up as an independent foreign correspondent, or by this post and you’re girding your loins to start a big writing project. Or you’re not inspired by this blog at all but your heart is carrying you toward something big, complicated, and hard to achieve. The question becomes: how do you make it happen? How do you accumulate the money you’ll need? How do you get everything done that needs to be done first? And how do you do it all without a) letting work/school/other responsibilities keep you from achieving this big, complicated dream, b) losing heart that you can really pull it off, or c) losing interest in something as distant, complicated, and abstract as this big, scary plan?

The trick, I have found, is to let the plan rule. Make it a tyrant who will not be denied, and then bend your entire life to its will.

Say you have decided, after careful research, to move to Colombia and establish yourself as a freelance foreign correspondent, reporting on the Colombian peace process, the effect on the drug trade of a shifting global attitude toward illegal drugs, the crisis in  Venezuela and the refugees therefrom living in Colombia and Brazil, environmental despoliation in the Brazilian Amazon and elsewhere, Chinese efforts to crack central American markets  and blast a second inter-ocean canal through Nicaragua, the caravan-inspiring gang violence in Honduras, and any number of other roiling regional issues.  Lots is going on, and while the New York Times has people in the region, such Triple-A ballclubs as the Kansas City Star, the Atlanta Constitution, the Minneapolis Star-Herald and others probably depend almost entirely on wire-service copy for their Latin-America coverage, leaving you an opening. You intend to become the Central American correspondent for as many of these newspapers as you can sign up, a process I will take up in detail if you’d like me to.

The advice that follows doesn’t only apply to deciding to move abroad and freelance. Making a tyrant of a deadline works for finally moving out of your parents’ house, finishing a book proposal, finding a job in your chosen field. But to return to the freelance-foreign-correspondent idea as an example: 

Your parents don’t want you to go. They worry about your safety and they’d prefer you have a job with a regular salary and health insurance. Your friends don’t want you to go. They’ll miss you, and also — and this is a painful secret truth — on some level your peers are going to be threatened by your pulling this off. If you can launch yourself into the big world and live your dream, what are they doing at Starbucks, or at safe jobs that don’t really scratch their itch? Your having the courage and energy to do this will be seen by some of your friends — even some who love you most — as a rebuke and a reproach. Point is: don’t expect a lot of support from the people around you. When it comes to making this big thing happen in your life, you’re on your own.*

I will continue tomorrow about how to make the plan an absolute dictator over your life, which is how you make plans come to fruition and dreams come true. 

 

 

*Unless, like me, you have a sweetheart who is also your partner in this adventure, which not only makes it way more fun and rewarding, but vastly increases your chance of success. I’ll write about how I got struck with that particular lightning bolt in a later post if you’d like me to.

Finding the topic

A reader writes, essentially, that droning on as I have about how to organize your notes is putting the cart way before the horse:

“I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind taking the time to answer a question I have regarding how you more or less typically end up with a story idea worth chasing after. Another follow up question would be how many ideas, or projects, do you typically have going at once? Throughout your career, have there been certain common denominators when it comes to how you come across leads worth pursuing?”
It happens that this is the aspect of the writing life at which I think I’m least good. The person to whom to address this question is Michael Lewis, who always finds terrific topics for his best-selling books. His are usually about sports and money — two topics for which Americans seem to have bottomless appetite. I don’t say this derisively. Money and sports consume a lot of Americans’ time and energy, so it is important that they understand them well and Lewis is doing the country a service writing the books he writes.
I can write well enough and Margaret is a terrific editor, so our books get good reviews that you can see by clicking through to each book’s page from here. But none of books sold many copies because, I think, none of our topics was particularly compelling or of-the-moment. 
As for magazine articles, I have no magic to offer except always to have your antenna up.  Re-watch the movie Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the eponymous writer. In the first scene, he reads a six-inch story about the murder of a four-person family in Holcomb, Kansas, on page two of The New York Times and immediately picks up the phone to call his editor at The New Yorker. “I want to write about this,” he says, and in so doing Capote invented an entirely new genre, the “non-fiction novel,” a form to which I will return in this space. 
As for what you can do to find stories, read newspapers and magazines, and take notes while you do — people’s names, names of documents you’re going to need, dates, events, and so on. What I personally look for is something that can be made into a story — with beginning, middle, and end, a good cast of characters, some action, and, if possible, some national significance. It also has to interest you, deeply. I hate to say something as seemingly useless as this, but you’ll know when you see it.” Your idea should thrill you. It should be something about which you want to be thinking 24 hours a day for the foreseeable future. Be bold. Don’t talk yourself into timidity with such self-defeating claptrap as: “I’ll never get access.” “I won’t understand it.” “I’m not an expert.” Make access. Find people to explain it all to you and read deeply. Turn yourself into an expert.
Teachers and books used to advise beginning writers to write about what they know about. Tom Wolfe turned that on its head in a way that is spot-on: Write about what you know nothing about. That way, you have to ask the basic questions and can’t fall back on your half-baked misconception-filled “understanding.” 
You can pretty much reverse engineer any of my magazine proposals, or even my book proposals and see what got me there. 
You could also assign yourself a beat. Way back in 1977, when Iran was holding the American diplomats hostage and the Carter administration was imposing financial sanctions on Iran, I knew a freelancer who made it his business thoroughly to understand how those sanctions worked, where the Iranian assets were parked, how “freezing” them worked, and so on. He turned himself into the country’s leading expert in the Iranian sanctions and thus was in demand by magazines that wanted to report on them.
I’m thinking now about assigning myself a beat: covering, day to day,  the process by which the city in which I live — Boulder, Colorado– aims to create its own electric utility. I knew it was a good story for me when I saw yet another story about on page one of my local paper and heard a voice in my head say, “what about that?”* I realized in a flash that the story contains a lot of what I want in a topic right now —  a chance to get a piece of the climate-change story; it’s positive, instead of grimly negative and contentious; it’s local, so I don’t have to uproot myself and Margaret, it has a manageably sized cast of colorful characters; and I can fit it in around the job I’m currently holding. Once I’ve done enough initial spadework to write, say, a dozen dispatches about it, I’m planning to send irregular missives —  as a kind of serialized non-fiction book —  to the 338 people who used to read my daily newsletter Third Act Trouble. I also have a national magazine wanting me to turn all those dispatches, six months to a year from now, into a podcast. 
As for how many ideas I have going at once, I might have two or three percolating until one emerges as the solid bet, at which point I will store the folders containing notes on the others somewhere safe, to be taken up in the future. 
Short answer: choose the topic that most moves your heart. Because you’re going to be living with this idea, full time, for quite a while.
*In all honesty, the voice was Margaret’s. It was who suggested I write serially about Boulder’s attempt to detach from the big corporate utility and start it’s own.