Fellowship to the National Press Foundation’s Reporting Retirement program

Because I’ve been writing about retirement issues for CBS MoneyWatch recently, a program caught my eye: “Reporting Retirement: Finding New Angles,” hosted by the National Press Foundation in June. With support from my editor at CBS, I decided to apply, and was thrilled last week to learn I’ve been awarded a fellowship to the program.

For me, what’s interesting about retirement reporting is how rising income inequality will impact the futures of today’s working Americans, as well as how social and gender-based inequalities will also create different outcomes for groups of workers. Women, for instance, suffer from a well-documented gender pay gap, which means that women are more likely to enter retirement in poverty than men. Given that women generally live longer than men, this also means more years subsisting in (sometimes) dire poverty.

While this is definitely an issue for older women who didn’t have careers or income of their own, younger women today are also impacted by many of these same issues. Women are more likely than men to take time off to care for family members, crimping not only income but retirement savings. In my own case, I took some time off from work when our family moved to Burlington, Vermont and my husband started in a tenure track job, a stressful time when we lacked family and friends to help out (we moved to a city where we didn’t know anyone). Recently, my Social Security statement arrived, and it was a bit of a shock to see the sudden dip in income for the time when I cut back on work to get ourselves settled.

Now, with several years of freelancing behind me, I’ve built up my income, but without an employer-sponsored 401(k), I’m responsible for setting aside money into an IRA, which I’m conscientious about doing, yet it’s far from the amount I’d be socking away if I had an employer match. By some counts, about one-third of Americans are now part of the “freelance economy,” which raises questions about whether our retirement system is out of date with the reality of how millions of people work.

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At the start of 2015, I had the happy circumstance of seeing my flash fiction story “Death Comes for the Microbot” published at Flash Fiction Online. As a fiction writer, watching one of your pieces get published is similar to watching your child walk to school on their own for the first time: it makes one both proud and somewhat nervous. Independence! But what if they don’t look before crossing the street/get trashed by a cranky reader?

Flash Fiction Online’s editor Suzanne Vincent was wonderful to work with, and the happy end result was that my flash fiction piece trundled off into her very capable hands and found an excellent home. It also marked my first pro-level SFWA sale. The story received some favorable comments (even from people I’m not related to!) and a nice mention in Tangent from Cyd Athens.

I wanted to jot down a few words about how the piece came about. The story evolved out of a flash fiction class I took last year with the amazing Cat Rambo (if you haven’t read her stories, find one, immediately). In the class, we brainstormed a bunch of titles, getting our creative juices flowing. One of mine was “Death Comes for the Nanobot”; from there, I started thinking about the themes the title suggested. New tech; something small and fragile; a big force that none of us escapes; and the pain of getting older and feeling passed by.

From there, I wrote a first draft. A lot of aspects of the story changed by the time I was finished with the final rewrite (and flash fiction, just because it’s short, doesn’t mean it takes fewer rewrites): The nanobots became microbots when one of my writing group colleagues pointed out the insectoid robots were too large to be nanobots. But one constant was that the main characters remained genderless. Imparting gender, such as in languages where objects are feminine or masculine, can change the way readers think about and view those things, sometimes kludging gender-based biases into their interpretations. Death is universal, no matter if you are a man, woman or microbot.

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“Grandfamilies” and going broke

A Census report caught my eye last week about the rise in grandparents raising their grandchildren. In 1970, about 3 percent of children were raised by the grannies and grandpas, but that’s doubled to 6 percent today.

That made me wonder about the financial issues facing those families. What happens to grandparents who suddenly take on raising their children’s children? What type of financial burdens do they face, especially as many are preparing to retire or are trying to save as much as they can to make that possible?

For many, the decision to raise their grandchildren comes at a huge financial price, I reported today for CBS MoneyWatch. In reporting the story, I heard anecdotes about grandparents spending their retirement savings to gain custody of their grandkids, or simply to afford the necessities (diapers, food, daycare) that comes with raising children.

Because these grandparents aren’t in the foster care system, they aren’t entitled to monthly payments that foster families receive. According to an advocacy group I interviewed, if even half the grandkids who are being raised by their grandparents entered the foster system, that would cost the U.S. more than $6 billion a year.

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My story ‘The Frost Queen Requests Your Support’ in the Autumn issue of ‘Mirror Dance’

FrostQueenOne of my short fantasy stories is published in the Autumn 2014 issue of Mirror Dance, a fantasy magazine from the speculative fiction writer Megan Arkenberg.

I’m pleased this story found a wonderful home, and hope you’ll take a moment to read it, as well as the other stories and poems included in the issue.

My story is called “The Frost Queen Requests Your Support,” and it mashes up a regulatory filing with the story of a cursed (or talented?) queen who is searching for financial support — and much more. Could this be a new genre? The mashing of fantasy and finance? Finantasy?

Megan asks her writers to respond to a question about their work. Here’s what I said, in response to “Where do you get the ideas for your stories?”

Almost everywhere — sometimes it’s in response to a book or story, or a remark from a friend, or sometimes I’ll explore certain subsection of the genre, such as historical fantasy or weird Westerns. I enjoy playing with form; this story came about after reading scads of corporate filings for my work as a journalist, and thinking about how a hint of a human story sometimes manages to emerge. At the same time, I was reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to my 9 year old, and I wondered how the White Witch financed her ambitions. Often, several elements come together when I’m putting together a story.

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The Dooryard interviews me about fiction writing, SFF, and what makes a great story

As part of Short Story Month, The Dooryard is publishing interviews with Vermont short-story writers, including me!

The editor, Stacey Peters, asked me about how I published my first short story, how I juggle journalism and fiction writing (time management is always a problem), and Vermont writers I admire. I also gave her an earful about the awesomeness of science-fiction and fantasy today, and how I (finally) admitted my addiction to the genre.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview — to read the whole piece, click here.

TD: While you’ve only published one work of fiction so far, you’re a successful business and advertising writer.  Have you always written fiction, or is this a new venture?  Is it easy to make the mental leap from business reporting to fiction writing?

AP: Like many journalists, I’ve always written fiction. One of my friends once told me, “Every journalist has a novel inside, which is where it should stay.” Well, I heartily disagree with that. After all, if journalists took that advice to heart, we’d have no novels by the likes of Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman, two fantasy writers whose writing I adore.

My fiction always veered toward the “weird,” and finally I realized that I needed to write fantasy and science fiction, that a part of my brain was clamoring to be heard. These are the books I love to read, but when it came to fiction writing, I was forcing myself into a “literary” mold, which frankly wasn’t working for me. This partially came from growing up in a house where literary classics were prized, but the books I preferred  — Anne McCaffrey’s “Pern” series and JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” for instance — were looked down upon. I always felt a little guilty at reading those books, and, by default, writing in these genres. But getting older is also freeing, and allowing myself to write science fiction and fantasy has unlocked a part of my creative side.

As for making the leap from business reporting to fiction writing, I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but it’s certainly a change of gears. On the other hand, some of the themes I touch on share some issues with my favorite journalism topics: money, inequality, getting trapped by bureaucracy.

Like anyone juggling work and a family, my biggest challenge is simply finding the time to write fiction.

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Under fire for being a woman, writing

When I was writing for MSN Money last year, I noticed a disturbing trend: a level of vitriol on the comments section that wasn’t based on what I wrote, but on the fact that I’m female. 

The comments were vile and slanderous, ranging from alleging I had engaged in sexual acts to earn my job to simply calling me derogatory names often used for women, with bitch being one of the milder ones.

I’m not alone in being a writer who is woman finding herself singled out for abuse by the fact of her gender. Amanda Hess in “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” writes in the latest issue Pacific Standard about the slanderous, insulting treatment women are subjected to online. (It’s a great piece: check it out.)

Ross Douthat writes in the The New York Times that women covering cultural or gender issues may attract or magnify the response from (presumably male) attackers. “There’s no question that women writing from that perspective come in for more personal, sexualized abuse than women writing about, say, monetary policy,” he writes. 

Maybe so, but it doesn’t mean women who write about monetary policy are exempt. I’m a business journalist, and much of my work at MSN Money was focused on covering issues such as the minimum wage, food stamps and Obamacare. These are certainly hot-button topics that span the culture war territory, yet my writing was not personal nor did it address gender or sexual issues. 

The issue that Hess points out, and which Douthat misses, is that any woman writing on the Internet is a target for abuse.  Cautioning women who address certain “liberal, feminist”  topics (Douthat’s words) that they will be more likely to be targeted is short-sighted at best, and victim-blaming at worst. 

My employer at the time, Microsoft, took the abuse seriously. I appreciated their efforts to track down and rout out the harassers. But the problem is that you can’t ever really shut them down. Microsoft would delete an account when the abuse started, but sometimes only a few minutes later the harasser(s) would be flinging slanderous insults again, under a new name. 

As for remedies, Microsoft said it didn’t want to involve their legal department, for fear the harasser(s) would notch up their abuse. There’s some evidence that responding to them doesn’t work, since it provides attention, albeit negative. (Don’t feed the trolls, as saying goes.)

When the abuse was particularly pernicious, my editor, who is also female, suggested I publish without a byline. Yes, that would have shielded me from gender-based abuse, but it would have been giving in to the trolls’ subtextual demand, which is basically, “You are a woman. You do not deserve to be heard.” Taking away my identity online would be giving in to their harassment, so I declined the offer. 

I’m not going to attempt to parse the mentality of a troll, but the widespread abuse that women writers endure at the hands of online harassers brings up the question of whether the behavior is linked to our culture’s pervasive portrayal of women as sexual objects — and the absence of portrayals of positive, authoritative women in the media. 

When the mirrors we look into reflect an unreal picture of “reality,” where only one out of three speaking characters in G-rated films are female and four out of five film narrators are male, maybe it’s not so surprising to see a certain portion of society struggling to deal with women with powerful voices.

Trolls with gender-based abuse want to shut women up, but their presence points out the need for more women in authoritative roles, not fewer, as well as better, stronger laws for prosecuting them, as Hess writes in her piece. 

And if you happen to see a troll engaging in gender-based abuse, consider calling him or her out on it (yes, women have been guilty of this type of behavior as well.)

Nellie Bly, a pioneering female journalist, was first lauded for traveling around the world in 80 days, but later faced criticism for seeking to (unwomanly) profit from the feat.

Nellie Bly, a pioneering female journalist, was first lauded for traveling around the world in 80 days, but later faced criticism for seeking to (unwomanly) profit from the feat.

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January 13, 2014 · 8:44 pm

Do the “Best SFF Books of 2013” lists show gender bias?

 

Ladies, start your engine.

Ladies, start your engines.

An annual accounting can be a useful thing, with the year-end bringing a time to take stock and reflect on the previous months. It’s more than navel-gazing, though. Counting and analyzing trends can help illustrate bigger changes that we might not otherwise notice as we get buried in the ho-hum daily grind. 

Birders turn out for the annual Christmas count to track the health of the avian world. For women and men in the creative arts, there are a number of assessments of progress, ranging from gender disparity in family films to VIDA’s annual “Count,” which looks at how many men versus women are published by more than a dozen literary publications. 

Last year I took a look at the gender breakdown among the curated “best books of 2012” lists, and found an apparent bias toward male writers: out of 322 recommendations, men took home 59% of the gold stars. In science fiction and fantasy, 68% of 2012’s recommendations were awarded to men.  

This year, I’ve only focused on science fiction and fantasy (my favorite genres), and tallied up 113 recommendations across nine lists. The curated selections represent the best SFF books as identified by publications ranging from The Guardian newspaper to Buzzfeed.

A pleasant surprise was in store: the gender split was decidedly more even, with women representing 47% of the best-of books and men taking 53%. Sure, 2013’s curated lists of best SFF books are leaning slightly toward men, but it’s not a statistically relevant difference. To sum it up: This year’s lists indicate gender equity (yay!). 

 But there are a few issues lurking beneath the surface. For one, these lists represent the creme de la creme of SFF writers, award-winning authors such as Margaret Atwood (who made several lists with “MaddAddam”) and Yoon Ha Lee (“Conservation of Shadows.”) 

Given that these writers are at the top of their fields, they don’t exactly represent the whole wide swath of 2013’s published SFF books and thus analyzing such lists may not actually tell us much about gender bias across speculative fiction. A better analysis would be to track submissions by gender and subsequent publication. (Something that I haven’t been able to data on — if anybody knows where that can be found, please add a comment below.)

There’s at least one speculative fiction journal that does just that: Clarkesworld, the award-winning science-fiction and fantasy magazine. Editor Neil Clarke wrote in his November editorial, “Despite the slush pile favoring men 71% to 29%, 65% of the purchased stories were written by women.”  (Full disclosure: I am a slush reader for Clarkesworld.) His conclusion was that women, at least in the past year, were better at anticipating what types of stories the magazine wanted.

 The bottom line is that neither gender has a lock on quality writing. But it’s refreshing that, at least in 2013, the people putting together the “best SFF of 2013” lists apparently agreed. 

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