Recently, I wrote a personal essay for Tor.com, involving sensitive topics. I’m well aware of the challenges of writing about sensitive issues like mental health and suicide – which are in this story. I’ve written on them many times before.
I asked a friend who I know has understanding in these things. She carefully evaluated the words I used in reference to the loved one who dealt with mental health challenges. She pointed out better ways of phrasing things that could be felt by someone who has similar mental health challenges as potentially insensitive.
Though I am aware of terms that can be hurtful, I live in my own head as I write personal stories. I know what I mean. But readers don’t know. They aren’t stuck in my head with my history. That’s why we need sensitivity readers.
What is a Sensitivity Reader?
Simply stated, a sensitivity reader is someone who is aware language that can be considered painful or offensive to given readers.
For example, if an article touches on racism, ethnic, or cultural topics, a sensitivity reader will be able to point out words and phrases that could be read as unkind, insensitive, or otherwise offensive – whatever your intent behind them.
Some Great Sensitivity Readers
If you find yourself in need of a sensitivity reader, here are a few to check out.
Thanks to the slower economy and chaos the world is in, I have had more time to write for publications, yet had fewer clients giving assignments. In one way, this has been great. I recently had two articles accepted at dream publications! With a third semi-dream pub in the works.
But it does remind me of the challenges we freelance journalists have. Some publications are splendid at paying in a timely fashion (usually 30 or 45 days after invoice, which comes after publication in many cases). Others, not so much.
Last year, I sold an article to a large publication for a sizeable amount for me, but pittance for them. The editor I worked with was marvelous. The story turned out beautifully! But it was a nightmare getting paid. The check wasn’t sent for 4 months. I moved. And because of the long delay, it went to the wrong address. It took another 10 weeks to receive the check again.
If this had been an isolated incident, I wouldn’t tell you about it. But many other journalists face the same issue. As I commiserate with fellow writers, the story repeats hundreds of times a year.
If you are looking at going into freelance journalism, don’t expect to be paid immediately for next month’s bills. Hopefully, you will, but you’ve got to have a backup, especially when you first start out.
If you have a job right now, wait until you can save at least two months’ expenses before handing in a resignation in pursuit of a writing career.
If you are unemployed and looking to start in journalism, look first for content writing jobs and develop a client base that covers your bills for at least the first few months. Then start pitching publications.
Develop a solid portfolio to accompany your pitches.
Build a website with a bio, links to articles (or your portfolio), and start a blog (maybe).
Understand that many – possibly most – freelance journalists also have regular clients of other kinds (content writing, social media, etc.) and/or have other gigs (dog walking, house sitting, consulting, life coaching, teaching, etc.).
When I first started out, I was scouring Craigslist want ads for one-off gigs, part-time work, and writing work. I did things like running booths at craft fairs, product tests, consumer research panels, home organizing, and became an occasional assistant to a magician (a job I still love doing, and look forward to doing again once the social-distancing lifts!).
My grandmother, Jerrie Mock, was a courageous, spunky woman who didn’t much care for gender-bias. She did love to cook (she was a gourmet chef), but she hated dresses and she hated the idea that a woman couldn’t do whatever she put her mind to.
On this day, 56 years ago (1964), she put that nonsense to rest. She, a housewife in a skirt and heels, took the record for being the first woman to circumnavigate the globe – and she did it solo in a single-engine plane.
She made 21 stops over 29 1/2 days, and took several world records, most of which she holds to this day.
For more reading on her journey around the world, you can read some articles I’ve written on her for various publications.
Al-Jazeera – Today’s story (2020) – A deeper dive into unknown incidents and events surrounding her flight, many of which have never been heard outside of the family and close friends. Plus new photos!
CNN Travel – 2019 – A narrative essay of Jerrie’s world-record flight with anecdotes about several unusual moments along the way
I have a big story in my life that deserves far more than a single article for a single outlet. This story has international significance, historical prowess, and huge equality importance.
This is a story I have lived and studied all my life.
But it’s still hard to find different angles on it.
I thought I had it down last year. I pitched the story to four different outlets. One snatched it up, then a second. The third asked me to pitch it to them. Same with the fourth. The third never responded. The fourth said my angle was too similar to the two that had been published.
I was flabbergasted. Yes, they were inspirational in nature, but their focus was narrative. The pitch I sent to the fourth outlet was strictly inspirational. It was a dream publication, so I was kind of crushed.
How I Found New Angles This Year
I have been wrestling with this idea of new angles for a year now. The anniversary is in a couple of days, so I started wondering how I could celebrate again this year with more pieces at more outlets.
I clearly couldn’t use the same pitches as last year – I’d already sold them. So, I read through what I had written. I jotted down notes on things left out of these articles. I noted the emotions that I experienced while reading the stories again.
These simple notes opened up the new angles. And now I have two more pieces on this story coming out within the week (including one for a different dream publication). And about a dozen other angles on my Trello board, waiting for the right call for pitches.
Thanks to COVID-19, a bunch of folks who usually don’t work remotely are doing so. Graphic designers, writers, and other freelancers already have a handle on a lot of things for home-based work – like scheduling, organization, etc. – but one thing I didn’t get a grasp of was my physical fitness.
Before I started working from home, I had a number of active jobs. I was a nanny who played with kids and took them for walks multiple times a day. I was a dog walker who biked her route and then walked the dogs – putting in between 10 and 45 miles a day between the two activities. I was an adjunct school staff who coached kids in tennis and other outdoor activities. I was a cycling/walking performance artist.
But when I started working from home, everything changed. I suddenly had the opportunity to stay fit and healthy by running, walking, and the usual activities on a free schedule. The free schedule, however was my routine killer. I got out of the habit of getting to the gym, going for a run, taking a walk, etc., because “I could do it later.”
I just want to remind you that as you work from home, it’s crucial to keep active. Set some timers throughout the day. Get up from your desk and walk around every 25-45 minutes, even just for 5 minutes. Take a morning walk before you start your workday. Go for an afternoon or evening run through the neighborhood. Watch some online workout videos or buy some workout DVDs or Blu-Rays.
Learn from my mistakes. Make a new schedule and stick to it as you work from home, maintaining social distancing as you walk, run, and cycle. And get off your butt multiple times throughout the day. Seriously. Everything will feel better if you do.
My mom grew up on a farm. Here, she learned to identify flowers (thank you boy scout leader Grandpa!), bird songs, and many other interesting natural things. Both of my parents were outdoors people and we often went camping, even survival camping when I was very young.
Since becoming an adult, I’ve lost this knowledge of what song belongs to which bird, I’ve forgotten what specific wildflowers look like, and I can’t identify a lot of trees that I once could.
As spring has sprung and the air quality has improved – thanks to fewer cars driving – more wildlife than ever is flourishing in our little neighborhood. So, I’m taking up an old love and finding myself a hobby I’m not able to monetize (the freelancer’s life, right?). I’m learning to identify birds and their songs again.
It’s free, it’s easy, and it’s fun. It gets me outside and listening, putting down my phone on long walks through the quieter streets. Thus far, I’ve seen a Great Blue heron, a beaver, a Downy woodpecker, a robin, cardinals, some Carolina wrens, Red Wing blackbirds, Chipping sparrows, and Grasshopper sparrows, and I just heard this guy outside my window.
I’ve participated in 10 NaNoWriMo events in Novembers, winning 9 of them. And I’ve often thought of participating in the other events throughout the year, specifically the April Camp NaNo. But I’ve just not made time for it.
This year, thanks to the lock-downs and quarantines, it seems like the perfect time to dedicate my April to doing another NaNo project. Especially as I have some big disappointments in my creative house right now.
This year, I am the same age that my grandmother, Jerrie Mock, was when she became the first woman to fly around the world. April 17 is the anniversary of her landing that flight. I was supposed to take my first flying lesson that day in honor of her dedication, spirit, and the wonder of it all. But with COVID-19 shut-downs, that probably won’t be happening.
I do have ideas for books to write about my grandmother, however, so I’m finding a different creative way of honoring her – through writing those during Camp NaNoWriMo, while I’m stuck indoors so much.
If you’ve got a creative project you’ve been putting off for a while, I encourage you to take advantage of this strange time in our world. Use these times to create and bring joy into the world through those long-term dreams of writing a novel, a new podcast, or whatever else you’ve got to offer to the world.
I’ll let the podcast do most of the talking, but for anyone who’s intrigued by history, aviation, women making history, or travel, you’ll love the story of my grandmother, Jerrie Mock, first woman to fly around the world.
Join us on her 29+ day flight starting in Columbus, Ohio, making her way around the globe, having crazy adventures, meeting unique people, and being a novelty wherever she went in 1964.
“I went to the auditions for the Rockettes, and [knew] I’d probably get in, since I’d done it the year before…I did the audition and I thought ‘I really don’t want to be here.’ … They’re corny. It was stupid artistically… I had pointe shoes in my bag. I was wrapping them up and I said, ‘I am never doing this again.’” And she never did.
From this cross-roads experience in New York City, after auditioning for a thing she simply was “not in the mood” for, Petra Van Nuis quit and headed home to Cincinnati to pursue what she loved: jazz.
Being a theatre girl myself, I needed to know what it was that would induce a fellow theatre actress/dancer to give up a likely successful career to go in a completely different direction at the age of twenty-four.
Petra had been performing for her whole life. She attended a performing arts school in Cincinnati, Ohio. “It was one of the first performing arts schools. It was revolutionary when it started in the 70s. I started in the mid 80s. It was 4th to 12th grade. That school was a really beautiful place. It was a public school. It [had] kids from different neighborhoods, [and] was racially pretty balanced…I did mostly dance, but some singing and acting. [But] they didn’t have jazz. They had a ‘jazz band’ but they didn’t play jazz…I don’t know what it was.”
And then she met her high school sweetheart, Andy Brown, her now husband. He transferred in from out of state, and they met in the eleventh grade. “He got into jazz first, and that’s kind of how I became involved. I was already exposed [to jazz] because of theatre, but this was a more natural way—less planned out…” They both began gigging out, and Andy naturally curved into jazz. “I would go to all his gigs, and you were just listening to each other. Everything in theatre is so rehearsed, especially in dance. So I kind of liked the idea of winging things.” She began listening to others in the jazz scene in Cincinnati. “Cincinnati has great live music for such a small town. They were just more honest and more spoken, more conversational, more personal. And I just like the freedom.”
“All my classmates went on to Broadway Theater and things. The school is known for that. I did some national tours and things, but by 24, [I] decided ‘ I’m changing careers.’”
She’d come to love jazz by now, and she knew this was her path. “‘I’m going to be a jazz singer.’ I don’t know how, but I’m going to do it.’ I was working at a restaurant, but planned to work there as little as possible and just practice as much as possible. I listened to a lot of music…maybe I could do a gig one day.”
And how she got her start?
“My husband was talking one day with a wedding client, and they wanted to add a singer, and he said, ‘I know somebody!’ And it was before the internet when people could look people up online, and I didn’t have any gigs. She asked how she could hear me [so] I sang for her on the phone.”
Since then, Petra has sung across the Midwest (Ohio, Michigan and Chicagoland specifically), the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium, as well as other locations in the U.S.A. She’s a regular at jazz festivals and clubs around Chicago, where you can often catch her performing with her husband, Andy Brown, the talented jazz guitarist.
“So what is it you most enjoy about performing jazz?”
“I enjoy when the magic happens. I think everyone does. It’s probably 95% that isn’t, but that 5% when everybody’s listening to each other, and the audience really hears something…When you really feel that sincere emotion. You connect with yourself. I call it magic: that moment when you really connect with yourself, the other musicians, the audience. When you feel those sparks fly. [I also love when you’re] singing something you’ve never done before—when you take a chance and it works. A lot of times, you improvise, but every time you take a chance and you release yourself and surrender in your brain—that little voice stops yapping at you. You can really surrender and explore without fear and feel and hear something. The little voice trying to tell you what to do next… ‘say this on the [microphone]’ or ‘do this song next.’ I try to listen to that intuitive voice and try to follow. I don’t reject it, most of the time. Sometimes it leads you astray, and sometimes you say something that’s really stupid. But you know, what? Screw it—you have to try!”
I want to know what make artists tick, so I always ask musicians and other artists what they hope their audiences will receive from their work.
Petra responded: “I hope that number one, they would feel something from the pieces, from the ballads or the more somber pieces, [and] have fun on the more jovial pieces—that they would have a good time [and] feel more alive. Any live performance should help people feel more alive. For me, that’s usually what I take away. Once again that connectedness, in the best of circumstances that communion. [As the artist] you’re in charge of that communion, bringing everyone together…It doesn’t have to be that dramatic, just connection to other human beings, which I feel is kind of rare in this day of technology.”
“What do you think of the current state of jazz?”
“Obviously, I would like things better if it was more appreciated or more a part of the general psyche of the day. I’ve been doing this for twenty years. It’s always kind of grass roots things. Don Stille probably caught the tail end of the good old days. I’m 42 so I caught a little bit of it. A lot of the people I play with today were around for the older days and have played with original players. For me to play with them…I’m like the cat who played with the cat who played with the original cat. It’s a lineage. I feel like my generation is the last generation to have contact with the originals. I wish there were young people into it still. I don’t think it’s something a lot of young people have a lot of exposure to. Strangely enough it’s kind of used as a background music at Starbucks or something. I was exposed to a lot in movie soundtracks and things.” An example she gave from her own life was that pop artists have done some jazz. “I knew who Natalie Cole was, but I didn’t know who Nat King Cole was, [and] that bridged the gap for me. We find little ways to do our thing. We can slide in as background music for weddings and openings of shopping malls. We can do a lot utility gigs. There [are a] lot of background places [to play]. There aren’t as many places for shows, [though] there are a few places like jazz clubs. It’s funny. Nowadays a good place for concerts in libraries. If you have the will…if you aren’t alive without performing, there’s going to be outlets. They might not be glamorous. A lot of artists bemoan the good old days. But that’s long gone. Getting people to come…it’s a tough racket. You just have to get into what you can do and make the most of it.”
“What is something you want our readers knew about you or your music?”
“Many things…maybe one thing is that it’s hard. Not to complain, but it’s kinda… It’s tough, this being a self employed artist. Obviously, there are other things that are a lot of tougher. A lot of people see [it as] I’m just having fun. It’s great, but it’s hard artistically and business-wise. I try my hardest, but it doesn’t always come out exactly right, so please forgive! I pretty much do this full time [and] that’s why it’s hard. It’s also harder maybe when you have another job, too. It’s a constant hustle. I like the people that kind of understand it, and [that are] willing to support it. There are a lot of patrons… I have a really nice fan who kept bugging us to make a CD. He asked how much it would be and I told him it’s usually about $6000, and he said, okay, I’ll do that. It’s not about the money, but putting in a lot of time and not getting jaded…we’re all trying.”
With much gratitude towards her fans and other patrons of hers, as well as patrons of other artists, she continued. “I think some people think of the arts as a selfish pursuit. We enjoy it, but I think we’re also trying to use our ability to bring some joy and some connection and bring something positive to the world and create something positive, create something positive rather than destroy something. I want them to know how grateful and thankful [we are] for what they do: people who come and support us. [Sometimes] there are some people who are so supportive and send nice emails afterwards. I want them to know how much it means to us. A generous gesture just makes us feel good. Someone is listening.”
She’s been inspired by the artists of the past, and linking her own story with the history of jazz around the world, singing with people who played with the people who played with the people who played with the original artists who created jazz. As she releases CDs (check out her website: petrasings.com), gigs out, and balances life and work with her husband and cats, she continues inspiring others, like me. Talking with Petra about her path in jazz, her love of just the music, and her pursuits inspires me to get out there myself with my own dreams. Who cares what society says? If you don’t want to be a Rockette, go sing jazz.
A hot, sunny Saturday afternoon welcomed thousands to Edgewater, a small, eclectic neighborhood in the north end of Chicago, where artists of varying kinds had collected to show off their stuff. Potters, jewelers, mask makers and painters line the streets between Broadway and Sheridan, while stages at either end of the two block festival, along with a smaller central stage, open up to performers of various kinds from the community.
I slipped onto the front row to listen to the artist dubbed as a Grammy Nominee, and immediately began snapping photos. I’d grown up listening to my mother play the accordion, and witnessed my cat writhe in torture over it. But I’d never heard anything like this before. Don Stille. Wow.
Don’s music is a fusion of pop, classical, and traditional music into a style unique to him. His brilliant playing, speeding through the notes, or gracefully stroking the keys while expanding the bellows, transports his listeners to other times and worlds. In that other world, twilight sinks in while the water laps against the dock, and all is at peace in the business of the over-planned, overwhelmed lives that we lead. The key to all of this is his accordion, an instrument most people of my generation might consider “lame.”
As he packed up to head out to his next gig somewhere else that day, I grabbed his card and asked if I could call him for an interview. He gladly accepted, and we both went our ways, enjoying the day, more jazz and perhaps a little too much sunshine.
On Monday I called, and still intrigued by his work, I asked him to tell me about his life as a musician. How had all of this amazing talent on a less commonly explored jazz instrument begun?
“When I was just a little tyke…I had coordination issues. Using my knife and fork wasn’t great.” Door-to-door accordion salesmen frequented St. Louis, where Don Stille was born, and when one particular salesman dropped by one night when Don was only five years old, his dad bought the accordion and signed Don up for lessons. “My dad, in his infinite wisdom thought this was an idea: he thought maybe it would solve my coordination problem… Within a week [of starting lessons], my coordination issues had pretty much cleared up.”
Who could have predicted that such a simple solution to such a normal problem would lead into a lifetime of great music? “I was really digging the music and was improvising on the music they gave me to learn. It was a common sense thing, and it grew into a lot more.”
Don Stille has been playing ever since. And since he’s now 72, that’s been a while. He’s played locations like The Green Mill (Chicago), at the New Orleans International Jazz Festival, Chicago Jazz Festival, Old Town School of Folk Music, Joe’s Pub and The Metropolitan Club in New York City, DePaul University, Yale University and various other venues across the country. He’s been playing with Bonnie Koloc for years, and in the past has played with famed entertainers and musicians like Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin and Ben Vereen, to name only a few.
“I am also a member of the Artist Ensemble in Residence at University of Chicago. And the ensemble New Budapest Orpheum Society or NBOS… [which] did a recording a couple of years back.” A lot of the music that they performed was specifically the Jewish Cabaret music found in Warsaw before and during the Hitler years. Most of it is extraordinarily heavy, but it’s telling the stories of the people in that time, in that place of great darkness in world history. “The album is beautiful…it was sent into a contest for a Grammy…We got a certificate and medal.”
While all of that is pretty awesome, what stands out to me in chatting with Don is the kindness and humility of his spirit. When I first met him at the early afternoon performance at the Edgewater Arts Festival in Chicago, I never would have guessed the acclaim he might grab onto and hold out as his banner. Instead, his energy and graciousness immediately drew me into his music and the conversation during our interview.
I had to ask what jazz means to him. Don responded, “That’s a very complicated question to answer. What it means to me… It is the music, the genre, that enables the performer to improvise, to spontaneously create…” Jazz, as he feels it, is a tremendous medium to express oneself. As to his own music, fusing different genres captures him because, “… It enhances and enlargers what I can express. I’m interested in many different styles of music, and I can call upon that in performance…[jazz uses] whatever genre or musical category to tell my story. I hope that [my audience] will feel that I took them on a musical turn.” Be it a melancholy tune like ‘Round Midnight or the ethereal Crepescule(Twilight), Don hopes to “get people to that place that helps them feel like they’ve had an experience worthwhile. It depends on them, and the way I’m telling the story to get [them there].”
I asked Don to continue. What is his favorite part of performing? “…Up until 15 years ago, it was about pyrotechnics with piano or accordion. It was so crucial to me—what the general populace thought. It was sort of an all-about-me mode. I’ve realized more recently that an instrument is like a [bridge] to connect to the audience—to connect them with [the] music. I enjoy connecting to a sentiment within me, and hope I can convey that to someone who is listening. It’s enabled me to perform on a different level. It’s more rewarding than the way I used to do it.”
“What is something you want our readers to know about you or your music?”
I could hear the smile in Don’s voice as he said, “I would want them to know that what I do comes from the heart. I always try to tell people to believe whatever you believe. I’m not big on religion, but I’m big on [the] spiritual. It’s something that directs us all. We should all try to connect to that spirituality. This music flows through me, and I am enjoying it as much as I hope they are. I’m happy to see what rolls through…and that is what I would want people to know about me.”
With a multitude of jazz greats of bygone years to listen to, emulate and learn from, folks like Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and many others, I wondered which current artists Don most enjoys playing with or listening to. “…Here in Chicago I’ve always enjoyed playing with world class players, such as: Stewart Miller (Bass), Bob Rummage (Drums), Eric Schneider (Sax), Mark Olen and Art Davis (Trumpet and Flugelhorn), Daniela Bisenius (Violin and my musical soul-mate). There are many more but…too many to name here.”
“And if you could have shared a stage with anyone from jazz history, who would that have been?”
Don took a few moments to think this one through, but answered, “In terms of [a] great musician/trend-setter, and someone with tremendous impact and a good person? I would say Louis Armstrong. As far as I know, everything I’ve read about him, he’s a great human being. Took a lot of heat, got stereotyped by a lot of black musicians, especially the younger generations…he was a tremendous musician…[had] that power as a player and as a person.”
Our discussion of jazz past, naturally led me to ask what direction he sees jazz heading in.
“Since the very beginnings of this Art Form (and this is probably true for any form of artistic expression), each group of emerging young artists has focused on pushing and stretching the fundamental elements that define this music, harmonic, melodic and rhythmic. This is no less true today, which is the good and natural process of growth and evolution. That being said I think the important thing to remember is that amidst the quest for the more complex, thicker musical colors and textures, we must keep the human connection intact. What we express must have its roots planted somewhere in our life-journey experience. Quoting from the timeless classic American Songbook ballad, As Time Goes By, “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die. The world will always welcome lovers, as time goes by.”
As our conversation drew to an end, I asked Don what projects he’s currently working on. He said that he’s starting to explore the world of healing music. He’s also currently working on a project with Daniela Bisenius, a Romanian-born violinist. With a specific focus on Gypsy Jazz, aiming to educate, they’re booking their performances into libraries and the like. To learn more about Don and his music, please check out his website.