Chasing the Dream

Last night, I submitted my first piece of fiction for publication.

[Originally posted on The Academy]

A while back I ran across this excellent cartoon depicting a section of “On Writing,” by Stephen King. The first few panels really hit me in the feels, because it depicts King describing his “dream” writing desk. Growing up, I always told people I wanted to be a scientist of one sort or another, because even then I knew writing wasn’t a practical career choice. Everyone wants be to something when they grow up, but how many people actually get there? What reason did I have to think I was any different? So I went with the achievable and smart choice, when really I was fantasizing about my writing room.

Let’s take the tour.

The first thing you’ll notice is the view from the window.  Sometimes there’s a lake, sometimes there isn’t, but the pines are always there, close enough that I can watch the squirrels chase each other up and down the trunks, but far enough away to allow for a nice yard. Under the window is my desk. It’s a little bigger than necessary for its function, but I like to decorate, so I need that space. The desk, like everything else, is a dark cherry color. It’s got everything a desk needs: a blotter; a brass lamp with one of those green glass shades; a decorative typewriter that I’ll try to actually use once and just end up making a huge mess with; and quirky desk toys scattered about for character. To the right is my little library, with bookshelves built right into the wall and soft leather chairs for reading (and maybe enjoying the occasional scotch and cigar). To the left of the desk is one of those old-fashioned refrigerators with the white, clamshell doors and a latched handle. This is my sanctuary, my little hideaway where I can slip into other worlds for a while and no one will notice that I’m gone.

Sadly, this place doesn’t exist. Yet. But I’m working on it. Last night, I submitted my first piece of fiction for publication. It’s a short story, a psychological horror tale about an incarcerated protagonist whose life is slowly becoming a waking nightmare. It’s got a little bit of social commentary, maybe some insight into the realities of life, and even some science. Also bugs. Lots of bugs.

I have no idea if it’s going to get picked up. I wrote it, after all, so of course I think it’s good, but it could be a real stinker. It’s just under 6,000 words, and I had to fight for nearly every one. It went through 4 drafts (one was eaten by the Microsoft OneDrive cloud gods — curse you!) before ending up in its finished state, and even now I’m thinking about making a couple tweaks. As the saying goes, “Perfection is the enemy of the good”; it’s time to let it go and see what the editors have to say.

This is the first time I’ve felt like I’m really treating my hobby as a career, and it feels good. All the little things that have been rattling around in my brain are finally starting to coalesce into something real. This first submission, while a small step, is the first one toward making my writing room a reality.

I can’t wait to break ground.

I’m a Travel Blogger

I got my first “job” today!

Sunday Shower Thoughts:

  1. “What would life be like if humans had a mating season?”
  2. “I wonder if sweet potatoes would be good on pizza.”
  3. “I love vacation rentals. How fun would it be to review vacation rentals? OMG, I’m going to review vacation rentals.”

I got out of the shower, threw on some clothes, and immediately set to work. I emailed 10 different vacation rental owners and told them I wanted to look at their place, take some pictures, and do a small piece on my blog. Everyone who actually read my email, responded positively.

On Monday, Josh and I drove into town and met with a woman who owns a dozen properties in the area and was excited to get some professional photographs taken of a property she recently acquired. That made me nervous. “Is she going to be upset when Josh and I show up with our phones and the GoPro? Does she think my blog is being read by thousands of people?” I was so nervous, but I put on my work voice and just did it.

We had so much fun! The woman and her mother were really nice people with interesting stories. The two apartments she took us to were lovely and exactly the kind of places we stay at during our previous travels. Josh took video with the GoPro and I took photos with my phone.


Again, it was a little nerve racking taking photos on our cheap equipment with very little photography skill, but the photos weren’t the point. It was the story. The woman gave us the rundown of the area (similar to what she would share with her renters) and we visited many of the places she suggested. We imagined an entire week’s worth of amazing blog posts and stories we could tell if we had a week at her place. It would be the dream job I have always wanted.

Dream Job Checklist:

  1. Quit my nine to five and hit the road. – CHECK
  2. Start a blog. – CHECK
  3. Make first contact as a travel marketer. – CHECK

Am I dreaming? Has this really happened? This blog has 30 posts, I doubled my followers on social media, and I got my first “job”. There are still a few steps to go before I’m Samantha Brown famous, but I’m on my way. I really am. How did I get so lucky?

Learning to Fish

Note: originally published over at The Academy

When I was a kid, my parents took me out fishing on a pretty regular basis. I was terrible at it. I didn’t like how dirty my hands felt after baiting a hook. I didn’t like sitting and waiting with nothing to do. I didn’t like not catching anything. At that age, I didn’t have an appreciation for the time that comes in between casts, waiting for that little tug on the end of the line that signals something exciting is about to happen. It just wasn’t for me.

I’m learning that freelance writing is a lot like fishing. First, you have to scope out the waters, looking for the right place to throw out your hook. Then you have to dress up that hook as best you can and drum up a little interest. Once you get a bite, you have to play a game of back and forth until you can reel them in. If you’re successful, you get to eat. If not, you get to come back and try again the next day.

For the past month I’ve been using Upwork to try and find freelance jobs, with mixed success. I managed to land two jobs last month, and the experiences were as different as night and day. The first job was creating a powerpoint presentation for a business professor who was speaking at an academic conference. She was presenting one of her lesson plans and the benefits of using her particular approach. The process was really straight-forward: I sent her an application explaining why I would be the best choice, she interviewed me, I gave her a time estimate and a quote, and then I came in under budget. Easy-peasy.

My second job, less easy. It was supposed to be a quick job, a 500 word “statement of purpose” for a college application. The job post said that they wanted an Expert, which I am, so I applied at my usual rate. She got back to me, and was interested in having me do the work, but was unable to afford my rate. I bid her good luck, and thought that was it. But then she contacted me again a few days later, saying that she’d already gone through two freelancers who said they could do it for $50, and neither of them had delivered, and she REALLY wanted my help because this was her dream school. We went back and forth several times; I’d lower my price, and then the job would become more difficult. In the end, I wound up doing an $800+ job for $100. Not only that, but she had high expectations that she was unable to clearly communicate, and was completely inflexible, something I didn’t find out until AFTER we’d signed the contract and it was too late to walk away. In the end, I think the statement we crafted was really well done, and I’m still waiting to hear if she got in or not, but this was definitely an experience in negotiation and sticking to my guns.

There are plenty of fish out there, if you’ve got the skills to land them. Unfortunately, I’m still learning those skills. But I’m getting better. I’m being selective about the jobs I apply for, my cover letters are becoming more targeted and easier to write, and I’m refusing to sell myself short. It’ll take time, but success breeds success, and the more jobs I get, the easier it’ll be. I just have to learn to be a little more patient and to enjoy the time in between.

Budget: Month One

The cost of a beginning digital nomad lifestyle, month one.

We have always been quite good at managing our money, but have never taken the time to actually document our spending. Now that our lifestyle and income have both changed so dramatically, it’s time to start keeping track of every penny.

There are one-bazillion nomad bloggers out there who talk about how cheap it is to travel, but few of them are actually open about their finances. I might be shooting myself in the foot here, but I would like to open up the books and share our budget and income for anyone interested.

Month One: Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

Setting the Scene: We have been living in Salt Lake for a little over a year. The apartment is well stocked with household equipment, but we reduced the supply of consumables before starting the month for a more accurate view of how things will be going forward. We are not including rent in this month’s budget since it was already paid for, but we did have a car and drove frequently.

We ended up skipping the budget for Week 1 since I was still working, it was Josh’s birthday, and his mom came to visit. (Editor’s note: I had been well under budget for the week, but my celebration kinda blew that up. Totally worth it. -Josh)

Budget Goal: I set our goal income at $600 with the expectation that we might come in a bit short due to the transition. Our spending goal is $388.50 (about $18.50 per day). I set this amount assuming an average of $15 for food, $3 for entertainment, and $0.50 for gas per day. I got these figures by averaging prices I researched online along with a solid bit of guessing (it is my first month, after all!).

Income: Josh started the job search on Upwork on Monday of Week One. He got his first job on Tuesday of Week Two. Throughout the month, he officially worked 12 hours (not including finding and bidding on jobs) and made $352, although $100 of that hasn’t yet been deposited in our account, so it won’t go on this month’s summary.

Expenses: Our total spending for three weeks was $398.15, putting us an average of $18.96 per day. That’s just a little over our projected spending limit ($0.46 per day), so we actually did fairly well in sticking to the budget. We ended up driving a little more than expected, costing us a little extra in gas, and we also went over with our goodbye dinners/celebrations, but just barely. Compared to what we were spending just a month before, this is an incredible turnaround.

Summary: For the month of October, we ended up slightly over budget and pulling $146.15 out of our savings account. We expected this due to birthday celebrations and going-away parties. I still very good about the month and am looking forward to seeing how we do once we hit the road.

Why I’m leaving science

The day I defended my thesis was one of the best days of my life. At that point I’d been in school for a total of 23 years, and I’d finally reached the end of the road. Surrounded by family and friends, I received the title of “Doctor”. It seemed I was finally ready to embark on a career that would be challenging, but fulfilling. It was and is a major achievement, and I’m still very proud of it.

So why the hell would I want to walk away?

The fact of the matter is that I never wanted to be a scientist. When I first started college, I chose to go into science because I knew I could do it, and it was more practical than the other majors I was interested in. I just knew too many unemployed English majors to think it was a viable career choice. But one of the downsides to going to such a small state school was that there were no research labs, so I had very little experience actually doing science when I graduated. Not only did this set me back when trying to get into grad school, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into in the first place. Had I been able to spend time in a real research lab, I may have figured out much earlier that I don’t like doing lab work.

And it’s not just the monotony of labeling a million little tubes or doing an experiment over and over again until you get it right. When you do research for a living, you’re never truly “off”. There’s always another paper you could read, data to analyze and re-analyze, or abstracts/papers/grants/theses to write. And there’s always a presentation to prepare for, whether it’s lab meeting, journal club, student seminars, poster sessions, or conference talks. Maybe it’s just me, but if I wasn’t doing any one of these things, I would start to feel bad about not working hard enough, so my downtime (what little there was) was tainted with guilt. One of the reasons I was so happy about graduating was that I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this anymore, and yet even as a postdoc this has been true. There’s just no escape from it.

Now, I’m sure this is the cost of any high pressure career, but in general there are some sort of benefits to outweigh all of the difficulties. My experience is that this isn’t true in science. For starters, the financial rewards are minimal. As a grad student I was being paid to get my degree, which admittedly is a pretty good deal and hard to complain about. However, I was only making between $26-28k/year, while dealing with all of the above pressures and putting in 50+ hours in a week. Before grad school, I was waiting tables and selling video games, and made ~$36k/year working less than 40 hours/week. And when work was over, it was over. A postdoc salary is a little better, ~$43k/year, but certainly not commensurate with the amount of time and effort that goes into obtaining a PhD in the first place. And I still don’t make as much as Jen; in fact, I just caught up to where she was three years ago. She still makes a full third more than I do, in a career that only requires experience. All of a sudden that fancy degree hardly seems worth it.

The other big one is that it’s a “rewarding” career, work that actually makes a lasting impact on the world. This is certainly true for the pursuit of science in general, but on an individual level it rarely feels rewarding (for me at least). It’s been suggested that half of peer-reviewed articles are read only by the authors and the reviewers, and while that’s most likely wrong, there are still only a handful of people in the world who are capable of taking what’s found in those journals and turning it into something useful. It’s incredibly frustrating to spend hundreds of hours working on something that feels like it has no practical value, and will simply be released into the ether, noticed by no one. And even if you do stumble on something exciting, it could be decades before that gets translated into something that will actually help someone, usually by somebody else.

The other half of this equation is how it’s affected my personal life. To put it bluntly, graduate school was hell on our marriage, and it barely survived. From the beginning Jen was opposed to living in Eugene, but the University of Oregon was the only school I got accepted into, and I felt I needed to get my PhD so that I could get a “decent” job. At the time I was really down on myself for having two bachelor’s degrees in science, and yet was still waiting tables and working retail. I thought a PhD would be my ticket to a better career, one that would take care of us both financially so that Jen could pursue whatever she wanted. So I insisted that we move to Eugene, leaving behind family and friends at the promise of a better life at the end. It ended up being six years of hell, with both of us constantly stressed out and fighting all the time. There were times Jen would say to me that she wished she could just fall into a coma and wake up when I graduated. We both saw that day as the end of the tunnel, when we could get out of this holding pattern our lives were in and move on.

But that hasn’t happened. Instead, I’m back on another 5+ year path to a job that I think is the one I want. Meanwhile, I’m still not being paid well, I still hate being in lab, and I’ve actually had to start taking classes again. Maybe I’m looking at it wrong, but I feel a certain level of indignity at being a 33 year old PhD who still has to ride the bus to school and do fucking homework. It feels like moving backwards.

I know that most people hate their jobs, yet they just grit their teeth and grind through. Fine. But there’s no reason why we have to make that same choice. At this point, we have no kids, no property, no debt; in short, we’re not tied down to anything. Neither one of us is living our ideal life at this point. But as it turns out, the only reason we aren’t is because we simply haven’t chosen to. Jen wants to travel. I want to write. So that’s what we’re going to do. I’m leaving science because it gives us the rare opportunity to pursue what we really want in life. It may turn out to be the worst decision we’ve ever made, but as of right now it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way. It feels good. Real good.

It’s time to start living.


What Now?

I know quitting a job isn’t a big deal, but it adds a little bit of anxiety when considering the options we’ve laid out for ourselves…. I say, “fuck it.”

“I nearly quit today, but I was worried you would be upset with me, so I didn’t.” – Josh

It has been nearly a month since this one sentence has taken control of our entire existences. Every conversation and every lingering look has been filled with the daunting question of “what now?” I know quitting a job isn’t a big deal, but it adds a little bit of anxiety when considering the options we’ve laid out for ourselves.

Option Adulting

Just deal with it like a real adult. Everyone hates their jobs. That’s how life works.

Risk Level – Low

Pros – We keep our cushy lifestyle and nothing really has to change.

Cons – Nothing really changes and we still hate our jobs.

Option Take the Reigns

Find a new job, then quit the old one. Maybe it’s time to hate a new job with different scenery (see option adulting).

Risk Level – Medium

Pros – We keep our cushy lifestyle and hate our jobs slightly less.

Cons – We still hate our jobs, but in a new way.

Option Fuck It

Throwing all caution to the wind in search of living our dreams as world-traveling nomads. Who needs money when we have… life without money? Yeah. That’s a solid argument.

Risk Level – High

Pros – We have the time and freedom to do whatever the hell we want.

Cons – There are mass amounts of unknowns and a huge lack of stability.

So there we have it. We have marketable skills, we’re child-less, pet-less, and debt free. I say, “fuck it.”