2018 was a year of writing breakthroughs for me: I published my first story in a major newspaper, got into an MFA program, and attended my first writers’ residency. I also did a lot of work under the hood: much early-draft novel writing, broad spectrum essay-writing, and plenty of note-taking related to my time in Australia. Here’s what I was up to this year.
January – March
I started 2018 in Australia, where my partner and I were finishing up a six-month stint in the state of Queensland. We were part of a government-sponsored grant program called Hotdesq, which aims to foster economic development by bringing experienced technologists and entrepreneurs to Queensland. In early February, we travelled to Longreach—an outback town with a population of 3,000—to help host a women’s startup weekend event sponsored by Techstars.
Although Longreach is a tiny town, it is the most significant population center in this remote part of the Outback. Women drove for eight hours or more to attend the event. Many of them raise cattle for a living, on huge tracts of land where they live alone with their families, with no neighbors for hundreds of miles. Getting to a hospital requires a helicopter trip. There is a famous story (cited as one of the seeds of today’s Royal Flying Doctor Service) about a man in early twentieth-century Western Australia who ruptured his bladder. A doctor advised him on surgery (performed with a pen knife) via morse code because there was no other way to get him medical care in time. Thankfully there are cell phones, Skype, and helicopters to help with medical care now, but it remains eye-opening to see how people adapt to living under such remote (and often harsh) conditions.
Later that month, we flew to Cairns to speak on a panel about marketing products when you’re starting from zero. Cairns is the main jumping-off point for exploring the Great Barrier Reef, and it’s also an access point for the Daintree Rainforest to the north. Cairns feels like southeast Asia in some ways: warm, humid, and home to a night market reminiscent of Thailand. If I recall correctly, about a third of the city’s population are immigrants (largely from southeast Asia and India). It’s no coincidence that Cairns had the best food I ate in Australia, including an Indian place so good we went there for lunch twice.
After our panel, we drove through the Daintree Rainforest and along the coast. The coast is packed with beautiful white sand beaches where swimming is prohibited: saltwater crocodiles are known to roam there.
Finally, we headed out to the Great Barrier Reef for a day of snorkeling, where we saw sea turtles, jellyfish, string rays, little sharks, and magnificent fish of all types and colors.
In March, we flew to Melbourne and spent a day touring museums, buying snacks at the Victoria Market, and watching the penguins come in for the night on the southern pier. From there we took a nine-hour boat trip to Tasmania and spent a week driving along the east coast of the island, stopping along the way to hike. Tasmania deserves its own blog post, but suffice it to say: there were wallabies, wombats, good food, and charismatic dairy cows. It was a blast.
What writing did I do? I finished the duct-tape draft of a novel (you know: the draft so bad that it’s just held together with duct tape and hope). I took a lot of notes for things I eventually want to write about Australia. I wrote a few essays—on inherited trauma, the tyranny of online reading lists, and an attempted reflection on Australia—that I ended up not publishing anywhere because they weren’t coming together in the way I wanted.
April – June
We got back the US in time for my brother’s wedding in Solano Beach. I stuck the essay I’d been working on about the Real Housewives on Medium because I couldn’t bear to keep thinking about it, and I ran out of patience with the idea of pitching it anywhere. It’s never fun to pitch an essay you’ve already written. I just needed the thing out of my brain.
Ben and I collaborated on our insights on crowdfunding for an experimental project called Backer Tools. We wrote about how to set your crowdfunding campaign goal, alternatives to Kickstarter, and how to pitch your campaign to press. It was great to think this stuff through, but also so time-consuming. I finally put the experiment on pause to focus on projects that were more revenue-aligned and/or more creatively fulfilling.
I also wrote up some thoughts about my experience leading the Pebble Data Science team on Medium. I feel increasingly ready to close that chapter of my career, and part of that process involves getting out all the reflections and learnings that have marinated in my brain over the last couple years.
Meanwhile, I was hitting a wall with the novel. I did a few rounds of editing, but it wasn’t rising to the level of writing I know I am capable of. With novels, there are so many moving pieces that you have to keep in your head all at once. Everything has to come together just so—every word, every scene, every character motivation—and I could see there were hurdles ahead that I didn’t know how to clear. I realized I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to write beautiful sentences, but very little time thinking about the structure of how to tell a story.
July – September
I am blessed to have a mother-in-law who is a published novelist. In July, I sent her my duct-tape draft.
She recommended I look into applying to her alma mater, the Vermont College of Fine Arts, to do an MFA in Fiction Writing. The program is low-residency, which meant I would only have to spend two weeks per semester on campus, and spend the rest of my time writing and working remotely with an advisor.
I applied. I sent in my best pages from the duct-tape draft. I also had to write a critical essay for the application, so I reread Mary McCarthy’s “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” and threw together a few pages on the story’s libidinal twist on capitalist critique.
A few weeks later—just a month after I decided to apply—I got the call that I’d been accepted while waiting in line at Kreation in West Hollywood to buy a smoothie. The guy who makes my Chocolate-Lovers-with-Almond-Butter every week high-fived me. It was all very Los Angeles.
October – December
Just getting into the MFA program made me see my work in a new way. In October, I had a breakthrough: the right way to start, the right voice to work in, the key to solving a few structural problems. I started rewriting the duct tape draft, and I just knew that I had it, finally.
I submitted the rewritten version of my first chapter to my first workshop for my residency, which started December 28.
Early in December, I pitched an article to the Boston Globe Ideas editor. Inspired by the New York Times‘ report on Facebook’s response to their cascading series of PR disasters, I wanted to explore the structure of incentives that encourages corporate managers to stick their heads in the sand. The lovely editor there agreed to publish it, and he recommended some sources I could interview to flesh out the details of the piece. I spent two weeks putting the piece together, sending many rounds of drafts back and forth with the editorial team. The article, “When tech execs would rather just not know,” was published December 17, and the process gave me a new respect for journalism. The stakes are high, the work is hard, the pay is low—but the work is important, and it was satisfying to see the piece come together in print.
But by far the most transformative experience in my writing life happened right at the end of the year, when I kicked off my first semester at VCFA with a ten-day residency on campus. It’s too soon to try to put this experience into words (and this post is already getting long). All I can say is I am thrilled to be a part of this community of artists, to have access to such incredible mentorship, and to be surrounded by other people who believe art and artists matter in a world that often tries to convince us that they don’t, in the face of money-making practicalities, in the face of not-being-good-enough worries, in the face of what-are-you-going-to-do-with-an-MFA reasoning that seems resistant to the reality that I will continue to do what I always do, which is: Keep doing the work, keep climbing higher, and keep living my damn life. I was amazed by the talent of my fellow students, and I am certain I will emerge on the other side of these two years a better writer than I can currently imagine.
On to 2019!