“The client is having issues with the word ‘revolutionary,’” said one of our account managers while wincing and reading the email from her phone. “They think it might make people remember 9/11.”
The client was a graduate-level business program. Not the best program in the world, of course, but they had their share to brag about. They could claim the third best such and such and the most improved this and that. The real problem wasn’t the actual program, though. It was the client’s nearly pathological disdain for self-promotion.
That’s why it was our job—the copywriters and graphic designers and marketing strategists—to come up with a way to polish this horse nugget, a troublesome enough task without the client constantly second-guessing the direction and speed and pressure with which we polished.
I remember leaving the conference room and going back to my desk dejected. It wasn’t because I lived and died for advertising. Nor did I particularly care about the client’s success. It was just, well, out of the advertising agency’s whole portfolio, this campaign had the most potential for intellectual exercise. I felt like I could make something out of it—you know, actually create and persuade and inspire.
Oh, and maybe it was that this was the fifth time the client had worried their newfound slogan—literally the only interesting thing about the program—might remind people of the worst terrorist attack in American history.
Still, the cowardice and indecision and sheer insipidness stung like it was the first time.
But it was far from the first time. I looked at the stacks of research and creative briefs towering over my desk, each one pregnant with future disappointment. My inbox dinged about four new briefs waiting to be printed, more of the same. Behind one of the piles, I glanced at the wild boar skull I’d brought in to remind me that there was more to life than online banner ads and hopeless clients.
“Why can’t someone just pay me to read and write about cool animals?” I remember thinking. That’s what I liked to do, and all those heady articles about happiness and fulfillment said you were supposed to do what you liked. But that wasn’t real life, right? Most people hated their jobs. They found a way to deal with it. Why couldn’t I?
I considered stabbing myself in the eye with one of the boar’s tusks.
It was right around this time in my life when I flew to Arizona to participate in To Think, To Write, To Publish. I had applied to the program a few months before while I was finishing up my Creative Nonfiction MFA at the University of Pittsburgh. Grad students have all the time in the world to fill out applications for crazy things, and so I completed the forms and sent them off. When I was selected to participate, I have to admit I didn’t even really know what would be expected of me—I only knew I’d looked up to Lee Gutkind when he taught at Pitt and I was interested in science writing and, well, I’d figure out whatever that “policy and outcomes” stuff was when I got there.
But then I’d landed the advertising job and my life had shrunk down to the size of 9 to 5. Grad school was over, all my student loans came raging out of deferment, and I’d accumulated all sorts of other bills and responsibilities that creep in once you give yourself over to gainful employment. Did I really have time to fly to Arizona for this CSPO thing?
The answer, of course, was sure. It has always been my mantra to say ‘yes’ to weird things. That’s what led me to spend a season working for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park trapping and shooting invasive wild boars (hence the skull on my desk). It’s also how I came to be the editor and lead writer for a small fashion magazine, despite having no interest or aptitude in fashion. And later, it’s what spurred me toward making an actual living wage for my writing, albeit in the form of billboards, pamphlets, and social media campaigns.
Now I had the chance to fly to Arizona on someone else’s dime and learn how to write narrative from one of the best. There would even be the chance to rub elbows with real-life editors.
So I convinced the ad agency to give me time off I didn’t really have and packed my bags.
So much happened for me since I touched down in Tempe five years ago, so let me narrow it to just two important moments that changed the course of human events. OK, maybe just the course of Jason Bittel events.
One moment was during the conference hosted by the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes that took place after the initial Think, Write, Publish workshop. The conference was called “The Rightful Place of Science?”—a reference to President Obama’s inaugural address when he promised to “restore science to its rightful place” in society.
I’ll be honest: more than half of what was said in those panels and roundtables soared over my head, but one thing seemed to permeate each conversation—the need for better science communication from scientists and for the general public.
That’s when I got the idea to start a blog. I had no formal training in science, of course, but what I learned from sitting with all those science and policy professionals was that many experts were yearning to tell their stories, but had neither the time nor the motivation (and in some cases, the talent) to do so. I took that as an invitation.
After the conference, I paid a few skilled friends to design a brand and website, a platform for what I’d later call “serving science to picky eaters.” It’s true, I still had no earthly business teaching anyone about anatomy or biology, but I learned that if I called and emailed enough people who did, or Googled all their work, I could translate that information into something my peers might actually read. Heck, I thought, if I throw in a few Wayne’s World and Kardashian references, they might even enjoy reading about science.
So that’s what I did. By day, I wrote about healthcare facilities and graduate school business programs. By night: poison ivy, nudibranchs, and opossum penises.
The other critical moment of that first Think, Write, Publish conference was the panel where I met Laura Helmuth, then an editor at Smithsonian. I made note of her insistence that there was room for wonder and humor in science writing. Also, she said she liked to work with new writers.
I didn’t do anything with that information for close to two years, partly because of life—getting married, finding a house—and partly because of self-doubt. In the meantime, I wrote my little blog and honed my voice. And things might have gone on that way if it wasn’t for Think, Write, Publish.
The program had asked me back, this time to serve as a mentor to a fresh crop of science communicators. I didn’t feel like I had much to offer as a mentor, just this silly blog where I wrote about things like the false origins of lemming suicide, but again I said yes to another weird thing.
As I prepared to travel to Bethesda, Maryland, for the first installment of the new class, I saw that Laura would again be part of a panel full of editors and publishers. I also noticed that she’d since left Smithsonian for the online magazine Slate.
Hell yes, I thought. I’d been reading Slate for years, and while it would have been amazing to get my work published anywhere at that point, Slate was probably a lot more likely to accept me for my pop culture trappings and cuss words than most other magazines.
I immediately set to work drafting a pitch about porcupine sex, as is my wont. (I’d just discovered in an old book that porcupines practice an intricate and bizarre mating ritual that involves urine spraying and a whole lot of screaming, and I decided I needed to tell the world.) I told Laura I’d met her at the first conference, that if she remembered me at all, it was probably because I couldn’t stop talking about wild boars and well, please, pretty please, would you consider this completely unsolicited pitch about porcupine coitus?
Here’s the part of the narrative where you’d normally say, “And the rest was history!” But that implies that everything after fell into place with no need for sleepless nights and sacrifices and crippling fits of self-doubt and fear of failure. To be sure, there was plenty of all that.
But what I can say is that TWP was an enormous catalyst in my life. After that first article in Slate and a few more, I landed a regular gig writing for the website’s tech blog, Future Tense—a partnership between Slate and the New America Foundation. A few months after that, I had the good fortune to audition for a position at onEarth Magazine as their news correspondent. The three-day tryout coincided with the second leg of my TWP mentorship, further proof that Arizona is the land of portentous moments.
I got the job and quit copywriting for good. I’ve now been a full-time freelance science writer for nearly two years. I’ve had the fortune to write for National Geographic, The Week, Earth Touch News, Fast Company, The Dodo, and Baku Magazine. My work has also appeared in The Huffington Post, Salon, and The Tampa Bay Times.
But far more important than where I’ve published is what I’ve published. Laura and several other excellent editors at Slate encouraged me to write about panda poop, bat fellatio, hamster cannibalism, whale euthanasia, and canine sexually transmitted diseases. Elsewhere I’ve reported on predatory lightning bugs, antler deformities, melting starfish, butterfly bombs, weaponized rabbits, and the maternal instincts of earwigs.
If I didn’t now have a wild-eyed toddler ripping through my home office—another happy life development, though one I can’t attribute to my involvement in TWP—I could write about bugs and bones and buzzards all day, every day. I still can’t believe I get paid to do this. If I’m not living THE dream, I’m at least living MY dream.
The moral of the story, my story at least, is that good things happen when you say yes to weird things. (And not just because the things I write about are weird.) Every move—be it boars, fashion, advertising, or science policy—has put me a step closer to where I wanted to be. None of these choices were perfect. All required long hours, hard work, and a lot of learning. All made me question my initial decision to say yes. But all of that is just part of the journey.
I’m grateful for the opportunity TWP gave me to learn about writing and scientific thinking from Lee Gutkind and Dave Guston firsthand—these guys are legends in their fields, and I cherished every workshop, panel, and bar-side conversation. But I’m also thankful to have met so many other young writers and early-career scientists, both as a participant and as a mentor. These people have inspired me and pushed me to sharpen my own brand of science writing, and I’m filled with pride every time I see one of their names out in the world behind something cool.
Finally, I have to say I’m thankful for all the intangibles of a program like TWP. That includes the opportunity to network with people like Laura, obviously, but it also includes the many conversations I had with experts and amateurs alike, the exposure to new ideas, and the hunger that comes with seeing others pursuing their passions.
Had I said no five years ago, I might still be sitting in a fluorescent-lit office somewhere arguing about the perceived connotation of the word ‘revolutionary.’