On enountering a tipsy punk

I was on the way to work the other day, preoccupied with global problems, like Donald Trump and the war in Syria. I’d just read a New Yorker article covering these topics and, not uncommonly for the newly enlightened, was energized by the urgent conviction that I must act to better the world. Immediately thereafter I was filled with the foreboding that I didn’t know how. And that even if I did, I probably didn’t have the courage to follow through.

I’d rolled the magazine up and packed it under my arm as I waited to change to the U9 line. The screen revealed I had a three-minute wait.

Enough time for a woman with a large dog and a leather jacked adorned with Tipp-Ex to engage me in conversation.

“Is this the right side for Hansaplatz?” she asked.

I paused to think (I shouldn’t have had to since this is my daily commute but remember, I was carrying the combined weight of the world’s problems as well as my New Yorker).

Punk-27947

By Pax – Transferred from pl.wikipedia.org to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2118607

Then said: “Yes!” a little too brightly, hoping to make up for my hesitation.

“Good,” she said. “I was afraid of getting it in the wrong direction.”

“Oh, I do that all the time,” I said. (It’s true.)

“My friends will be wondering where I am!” she continued. “I spent all night partying in Tiergarten with the other punks.”

I nodded knowingly, hoping to convey mindfulness of alternative lifestyles.

It seemed to work because she kept talking.

“I turned 30 yesterday!” she said.

“You did?! Happy Birthday!” I blurted enthusiastically.

She combed her hand through a mass of hair in the center of her otherwise shaved head.

“Thanks!” she said. “Got my hair done too. Had to, for the occasion.”

“It looks great,” I said, and meant it.

“Check out my jacket,” she continued. “All my buddies signed it.”

She pointed to various names signed in Tipp-Ex. “That’s my best friend Nina .. and my buddy Timo!”

She was the kind of intoxicated we all aspire to: cheerful but not embarrassing, her non sequiturs redeemed by elegant syntax.

As I was nodding along, I couldn’t help but think: we’re almost the same age! And she lives in the park, with her huge dog and all her lovely punk friends, enjoying life instead of obsessing over her failure to make a meaningful impact. And then, because such things are in my nature, I felt inadequate in the presence of such hard-won resilience.

As the train came, she pulled out a bottle of liquor from the inside of her jacket pocket and waved it in the air.

“Breakfast!” she said happily, before ushering her hound on board.

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Eleven Tips for Aspiring Writers

I began blogging exactly four years ago, at the age of 22. At the time, I was living with my parents in Ireland. I’d graduated from university a few months earlier and had failed to find a job. Consequently, I had no money to travel or to do any of the other things that make long stretches of free time sound idyllic.

I spent my days refreshing the pages of job websites and crafting applications that got no replies. I would sleep in each morning and stay up until silly hours browsing the internet. Life was dull and I was under-stimulated; at 22, I felt ancient.

I was far too proud to borrow money and rejected outright the idea of my parents funding a Master’s. Eventually though, I allowed my mother to pay for me to do a one-month TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course. That led to a teaching position, which changed everything. As most of you know, I’m now in Berlin, doing a job I love and against all odds, being paid to write. It hasn’t been a smooth journey and I thought I’d take the occasion of my fourth blog birthday to share a few things I’ve learned along the way.minime3.jpg

Be humble

An inflated sense of entitlement can not only be personally damaging but can harm your job prospects too. If you’re reading this, the chances are that you enjoy a level of material comfort greater than most people in the world. (See this graphic for more info) Working hard and not getting far really sucks but remembering how relatively lucky you are makes you a more likeable, and hence, more employable individual. Expecting some day to get a well-paid and exciting job is fine, as long as you realize that for many people, wondering how they’re going to finance their next meal is a more pressing daily concern. Keep things in perspective.

Find something else to do

Be realistic – hardly anyone gets a writing job straightaway. And if like me, you’re not divinely inspired, you need fodder to fuel your writing on the side. I was lucky that I loved teaching. Being around international students all day long was not only enjoyable, it also gave me lots of story ideas. The busier I was, the more productive I became. I still frequently suffered from writers’ block but at least I had plenty of things to keep my mind off it. Teaching also made me more confident – I had to embrace a leadership role entirely inconsistent with my personality type. (More on personality below, too) Kat Richter, one my favorite bloggers over at Field Work in Stilettos used to write hilarious posts about her mind-numbing job in a shop in Philadelphia. She’s since become a dance teacher and freelance writer.

Red

This picture of books is here simply to add colour.

 

Don’t be too proud

This is something I still need to work on. After I graduated my sister offered to lend me money so I could move away and try my luck elsewhere. I point-blank refused. As I mentioned above, I also turned down my parents’ offer to help finance a Master’s. (That turned out to be a good decision, though at the time it was pride, rather than principle that guided the decision). Allowing my mother to pay for the TEFL course was probably the best thing I’ve ever done for my career.

 

Embrace failure

There’s a reason that Resumes of Failures are such popular reads. I’ll write my own sometime but in the meantime here are some of the things I tried really hard for but didn’t achieve: getting an internship at The Irish Times; a job at my local stationery shop, a scholarship to study journalism at Dublin City University; a position at a media start-up in Dublin. In all cases but the stationery shop I came really close. I was in the final six out of 600 applicants for the Irish Times internship; second in line for the journalism scholarship and received a nice phone call from the guy who rejected me from the media start-up telling me that but for my lack of sufficient experience, I’d have been perfect.

 

Know your personality

Being introspective is key to figuring out how to get to where you want to be. I’ve known for a long time that being fairly shy and risk-averse might not be ideal qualities for a journalist. But equally, being sensitive and spending more time listening than speaking makes you a desirable friend and someone people tend to open up to. So while I might never be good at cornering a person and sticking a microphone under their nose, I’m likely to get equally interesting sound-bites by giving people the space and time to open up. And while I’m not particularly assertive, when it really matters, I always speak my mind.

Help others

Helping others get to where they want is the best feeling. If you’ve achieved something, give back by offering someone else a helping hand. My favorite people to help are those that are almost too shy to ask. Those I’m not so fond of tend to be leech-types who attach themselves to you only in the hope of getting something. Last year, for example, I agreed to meet someone I’d never met who’d found me through my blog and wanted to “network.” I took time off work to meet her; she arrived an hour late, slipped me her business card immediately and subsequently sent me several texts and e-mails trying to convince me to leave my current job (and boyfriend) and partner with her in applying for a reporting program abroad.  That didn’t go down too well with me.

Find an alternative income source! (Mine was teaching which I loved and still miss)

Find an alternative income source! (Mine was teaching which I loved and still miss)

Your blog matters more than you think

I don’t make money directly from this blog (although I do get intriguing advertising offers from time to time) but I’ve had articles here republished on news sites. The article I wrote for the Irish Independent last year was a result of an editor finding me online. Although I’m sometimes embarrassed when work colleagues find my blog, it’s a good way to show your commitment to writing and a more personal side to your work.

Write about what comes naturally

I wish I were good at writing political opinion pieces or snarky responses to bad movies but I’m not. (I still try sometimes though). I find it much easier to write about my friendship with Frau B, people I see on trains and things around me that make me think. It’s good to use your blog as an experiment in writing styles but be careful not to try to become something you’re not. Never try to sound smarter than you are.

Reward yourself for your effort, not your success

There’s a growing body of research indicating that praising children for their effort is more effective than complimenting them for their intrinsic merits. Same goes for yourself. If you’ve managed to scribble something together despite a case of writers’ block, pat yourself on the back for putting in the effort and consider its potential shortcomings afterwards.

Working for free

I did, a lot. Every article you see in my clips for The Journal was unpaid, as was anything I wrote for Generation Emigration. The articles I wrote for Spiegel Online were on an intern’s salary. Did it help me get my current job? Yes. Were they all necessary? Probably not. Would I do it again? Yes. Do I think there are major ethical issues with writing for free? Yes, but only when you’re motivated by desperation rather than opportunism. If you want to write for a living, the chances are you’re going to be working for either a dying medium (in my case television; for others print) or a rapidly-changing one (online). Getting a foot in the door is invaluable and generally unpaid. Know your limits though; in hindsight, I need not have offered to edit a romance novel for free. Once you do start getting paid, be frugal. Writing almost always means embracing an insecure Lifestyle. Always consider alternative income sources.

Be Persistent

I applied for an internship at Spiegel Online after experiencing all the failures listed above. After waiting six months for a response, my mother advised me simply to send it again. I heard back within a week, got a phone interview and moved to Berlin shortly after. Sending that second e-mail radically altered the course of my life.

 

Once upon a time in leafy Charlottenburg…

“Did you ever have any interesting neighbours?” I asked Frau Bienkowski.

She paused to consider.

“I used to live next to a woman who worked as a newspaper deliverer. She would get up at the crack of dawn and go from house to house with her Berliner Morgenpost cart. She earned pittance; I felt very sorry for her.

Then there was the man acoss the way on Nehringstrasse. He had a wife, a mistress and a six-year-old boy. The woman he was having an affair with wanted him to leave his wife. But he said no, because he didn’t want to abandon his child.

Early one morning, when the man and his wife weren’t at home, the mistress came by and murdered the little boy.

She took his body to the grounds of Charlottenburg Palace and threw it into the lake.

When the police got there, they found a Berliner Morgenpost cart on the bridge.

They drove around the area blaring their sirens asking if anyone had seen someone with it.

My neighbour was missing her cart. She’d left it in the foyer of the house across the road while she was delivering the papers.

By Axel Mauruszat (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

By Axel Mauruszat (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

She was an obvious suspect. But in the end, the Police believed her when she said her cart had been stolen. They arrested the murderer; she went to jail for many years. The man and his wife moved away.”

Frau Bienkowski paused.

“Now I come to think of it my poor neighbor really had terrible luck in life. One day when she was delivering the papers, she slipped on some ice and seriously injured her leg. A binman who was passing by carried her home, put her to bed and called a doctor. She could never work again. But because she’d been taken home, rather than left on the street, her insurance wouldn’t cover it as a work-related injury and she didn’t get a pension.

Awfully unfortunate. But enough about neighbours Katechen. When are we having beer?”

 

Kate Katharina appears in rag, LSB brings home bottled water

Some of you might have noticed that I’ve been blogging less since LSB moved here. But, as my psychology professor used to enjoy pointing out, correlation does not equal causation.

I mean, of course we do spend the occasional evening in streaming epsiodes of 7th heaven. (We’re on Season 5 – Mary is in big trouble because – instead of going to college – she’s working at a pizza joint where she makes unsuitable friends who smoke pot and have premarital sex).

The Camdens of 7th Heaven. Image source: Wiki Media

The Camdens of 7th Heaven. Image source: Wiki Media

But, truth be told, most of the time we are awfully busy having our own lives and co-habiting on the side.

Take this week for instance. LSB started an internship at an advertising agency, where he gets “thinking time,” free yoga classes and and an endless supply of bottled water. (His interview for the position took place on a bean bag).

I, on the other hand, made it into the notorious BILD tabloid – Germany’s equivalent of the Daily Mail – with the seniors’ blogging project I co-founded last year. The blog – Berlin ab 50 is a place for the over 50’s in Berlin to share their experiences of getting older in the city.

Safe to say, I was a little bewildered that BILD – the world’s second best-selling newspaper with a circulation of nearly four million requested an interview with us.

And cynic that I am (in fairness, BILD is a rather nasty publication) I wondered whether my group of senior bloggers – three of whom are in their sixties – were sitting on a big dirty secret. Had they been in the Stasi? Had an ill-advised fling with a high-ranking official?

With a gulp, I wondered whether perhaps I was the villain of the story. However, I quickly realised I was far too much of a square to make it legitimately into the pages of a rag. Bloggers in BILD! source: http://www.bild.de/regional/berlin/berlin-aktuell/drei-seniorinnen-haben-einen-internet-blog-34082682.bild.html

Well, as it turned out, the BILD journalist was a very nice young woman who spent a whole hour asking us questions about our blog. Her colleague – a thin photographer who tried not to look bored during the interview – got the three seniors in the group to pose with laptops and smart phones around a table on which he had strategically placed some coffee cups.

The article, which you can see here, leads with the bold headline “We are Berlin’s oldest bloggers.”

Of course, our hits went through the roof. And then we started getting media requests from everywhere. We’ve even been invited to go on television.

I know.

Speaking of television, you’d be surprised how many people write to it.

You see, another reason I’ve been awfully busy in the past few months is that I’ve taken on additional job at the international broadcaster where I work. It’s in the Zuschauerpost or “Viewer Correspondence” department and it’s my job to answer the e-mails and letters people send to the television station. When I took the job lots of people said: “Why on earth would you want to do that? Only crazies write in to TV stations.” To them I say: perk of the job.

I get some very sad mails from people in developing countries who have access to a television but not to adequate medical care. And I get some very entertaining complaints. I derive a guilty pleasure from composing eloquent replies to ridiculous requests.

But it comes on top of my regular job as a writer and translator at the company, my shifts at The Local, my senior’s blogging project and my treasured visits to Frau Bienkowski.

Oh, and did I mention LSB and I found a flat? And moved into it?

preparing for a 7th Heaven session.

preparing for a 7th Heaven session.

Well, we did. More on all of that to come. But for now, it’s time for beer and a bit of 7th heaven. Got to get our priorities right.

(By the way, this post from The Atlantic about the worth of blogging as a medium, inspired me to finally sit down and write a post again! Check it out- it’s definitely worth a read)

Why people stop blogging

You can spot them miles away.

Blogs that have been abandoned by the successful.

As the days and months go by, the posts became sparser.

A dig through the archives reveals evidence of more humble times – detailed descriptions of trips to the supermarket, unsolicited critiques of films,dramatic confessions that nobody really cares about, anecdotes about odd family gatherings and photographs of asparagus.

Posts become weightier. Themes like politics and history rear their ugly heads.002

Success becomes a legitimate reason to write a blog post.

Out with the grainy pictures of home-made jam and in with shiny pictures of cook book launches.

Links to appearances in more well-read publications begin to appear, like acid being poured on a wilting flower.

Enough, I say.

I’m sorry I haven’t blogged in a while.

But don’t worry. I haven’t become a massive success.

I’m just guilty of benign neglect.

And I’ve also been surprisingly busy.

And, alright, if you MUST know, I’ve been writing quite a lot for other publications.

Sickening, I know.

But I haven’t forgotten where I came from.

I’m still Kate Katharina, creep supreme and number 1 fan of the lampsilis mussel.

Last month, I interviewed a 49-year-old woman whom I met in a homeless shelter.

She spoke to me in fluent English.

Every day, she goes to a café run by a homeless charity, where she sits, smoking and writing Final Fantasy 7 fan fiction.

I’m planning an entire post dedicated to that encounter soon.

Last week, I went down to Bernauer Strasse, where Michelle Obama and the girls were visiting remnants of the Berlin wall.

In the blistering heat, I interviewed a few people who had gathered to welcome them.

One of them was Ruben, a Dutch civil servant, who had driven all the way from Holland for the Obama visit.

His enthusiasm was infectious.

After I’d taken his photograph and the Obamas had departed, he asked me whether there was a loo anywhere in the area.

I wasn’t sure if this was off-the-record.

As the road was closed off and most of the cafes on the street were shut, I took him back to the little three-person office where I freelance and presented him to my colleague as “Ruben, a Dutchman who is going to use our facilities.”

I’ve also been working on- www.berlinab50.com which is a blog aimed at Berliners in the 50-or-over category. I’m guessing that doesn’t include most of my present readers.

And I’ve been visiting Frau Bienkowski, who has vowed never to let slip again that she was invited to dine on asparagus in palatial surroundings.

Rivalry in the home can become quite intense.

And LSB was over for a few days too.

I took him up in a giant air balloon and fed him with falafel.

And we had our first ever experience with a disposable grill set.

And on that intriguing note, let me leave you with a link to an article I wrote last night for an Irish paper.

the promise to do my very best to blog more regularly again.

Blogileaks: Kate Katharina rocked by sell-out scandal

If you want to be rich and famous, you should definitely start a blog. It’s the only way to keep up with the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world.

Katekatharina.com is a case in point.

From the beginning, my sober treatment of issues such as my talent for gibberish, my reputation as a creep and my savant boyfriend left readers crying for more.

I had to purchase extra electronic storage to cope with all the fan mail I was getting. I rejected several offers to write for renowned publications on the principle that Katekatharina.com was a more reputable source than say, The New York Times.

After some time, it became impossible to walk the streets of Dublin without being accosted by an admirer of my prose. The effort of gazing at my feet modestly every time a particularly apt turn of phrase was repeated to me by a stranger became too great. I decided to move to Berlin, where I thought I could descend into relative obscurity and focus on my art.

A rare moment of calm from the crowds as I climb a tower in the early days of my time in Berlin.

A rare moment of calm from the crowds as I climb a tower in the early days of my time in Berlin.

But it was not to be. Here too, passengers on the underground tap me nervously on the shoulder and say “If you don’t mind me saying so, you look really like Kate Katharina from Katekatharina.com. Others are more aggressive, pushing through crowds to thrust a pen and a print-out of my latest post into my hands, crying “Bitte, bitte, ein Autogramm fuer mein krankes Kind.”

Yes, my route to fame and fortune has been paved with widgets and clusters of html.

Or possibly, it’s been a bit more like this:

I’ve written over 200 posts here. Sometimes I spend hours writing a serious piece contemplating the meaning of art, or describing a tiny dead mouse whose death still haunts me, while other times I chronicle my developing relationship with a 93 year-old woman or defend pigeons.

The mouse that haunts me still

The mouse that haunts me still

The effort has paid off. Last summer the embassy of a wealthy middle eastern country offered to pay me to write a piece outlining – among other facts – the wisdom of its ruler and the progress the country has made in the areas of human rights and gender equality. When I replied saying that I did not feel I could write an impartial piece given the requirements, they promptly reassured me that I could be “reasonable and objective,” as if I were simply displaying modesty.

They’d found my contact details through a referral to the blog from an article I’d written for The Journal. That particular article paid me handsomely in… exposure (?) and afforded me the pleasure of trawling through a host of comments, most of which misinterpreted my article to conclude I was a Paparazzi fiend.

A more recent success occurred when the Past Pupils Union of my secondary school read a post I had written reminiscing about audible peeing in the school bathroom. They posted it onto their page and my hits rocketed.

I rejected numerous offers from prestigious publications

I rejected numerous offers from prestigious publications

And then recently, someone working on behalf of the company X contacted me, offering me a modest sum in exchange for linking to their site.

I had a drink with my friend, another freelance journalist in Berlin.

“You’ll be compromising yourself,” she said. “And for €80?”

A niggling part of me thought she was right. “But,” I argued, “They said I could write about anything; I just have to link to their site.. I mean I link to sites all the time, many of them happen to be commercial! And Y is not immoral!”

“And,” I continued, ever more desperate. “Every time I want to watch a video showing death and destruction on the BBC website, I first have to watch a stupid ad telling me to ‘invest in reMARKable Indonesia.'”

“I know,” she sighed. “It’s terrible the Beeb does that.”

So, here I am, “selling out” for the first time. The compensation is €80 (I hope!) which will pay for my monthly transport. For the amount of hours I’ve spent thinking about how NOT to make this read like a sponsored post, it’s pittance.

If I were living in a time when people still paid for writing, I’d have earned a couple of hundred for this 800 odd-word piece.

But I’m not. I was born into the digital revolution.

So, for all the would-be bloggers out there, the most important piece of advice I can give you is to take yourself excessively seriously. Just like me.

Otherwise, the attention from the fans can get too much, and you begin to crave the days when your blog had a small, loyal readership and when you deliberated for days over whether to post a link to a website offering to help people see again.

Kate Katharina is looking for an Agony Aunt… and she’d better be real.

Earlier this morning, I was asleep on a plane with a copy of Anna Karenina abandoned on my knee, when I was jolted awake by an adapter plug, which hit me in the face. I looked up to see a young man hovering over me. He looked mortified.

He had been searching for something in his case in the luggage carrier over my head and seemed startled to have launched a missile.

“I’m so sorry!” he said, grabbing the offending converter.

“Don’t worry!” I said, compensating for my drowsiness by employing an inappropriately bright tone.

He then had the unenviable obligation to continue looking for whatever he needed while leaning over me.

It was a laptop. He took it to his seat, which was diagonally across from me, and opened up a Word file containing many pages of text. The font was too small for me to make out. He must have sensed my dismay because just as I was craning my neck to make the title out, he turned to me and apologised again.

Kate Katharina being unimaginative among natural beauty recently.

Kate Katharina being unimaginative among natural beauty recently.

“Not a problem!” I said, waving my hand as if flicking away some trifling annoyance, like a fly or an undeserved compliment.

I thought that if this were the beginning of a story, our paths might cross again in an awkward collision on the way to the tiny plane toilet or while looking for lost baggage.

Inspired by the few pages of Anna Karenina I had managed to read, I began to weave a narrative in the style of a nineteenth century Russian novel. But soon enough, the prose became less imaginative, and the young man who had fired the plug morphed into LSB, and his glamorous but troubled victim, a peasant girl masquerading as a wealthy actress, became me again.

This is the problem, you see.

Reality claws its way into my writing. The effect is similar to the sense of confinement suffered when entrapped by an uncomfortably tight scarf.

Fiction is of course, suitably, the dream. Everyone wants to write a novel. And blogger types like me really want to. Sure you’d be mad not to. What could be more satisfying than cementing your immortality in pretty prose?

But the cruel tug of real life gets in the way of my dreams. Every time I sit down to write a story about things that are not true, things that are creep in.

When I actually managed to complete a short story recently, I sent it to my father to read. I thought I had struck a happy medium. Much of the story was true, but the interesting, pivotal bit was not. He liked it all but for the bit I had fabricated, which he found, *sigh* unconvincing.

He tried to comfort me by reminding me of the virtues of lesser writing, like travel memoirs and historical essays.

“Nonsense”, I said. Non-fiction is the refuge of the unimaginative. “Like me”, I added sadly.

It’s not as if I can’t make things up. In fact, LSB frequently accuses me of shameless fabrication. I’m able to imagine stories of boys with magical powers, dystopian universes and tales of dwellings made entirely of marzipan and inhabited by colonies of chocolate worms.

I just don’t seem to be able to write about them. Any time I go to write about something that was not, it occurs to me that I am infinitely more qualified to describe something that in fact, was. And so I write about the giant dog I accosted on the train, or the time LSB rolled down the hill.

Everything I have written above is the *sigh* true tale of a non-fiction writer in denial. But perhaps dreams can come true. I know many of you casual readers out there are talented weavers of convincing deceit. I’m left with little choice but to appeal to you, to teach me your art. In other words, help me before I am irretrievably lost to the Real.

Yours helplessly grounded,

Kate Katharina