Full Circle

Although I’ve always loved telling stories, I never thought I’d write them, and I certainly never anticipated writing professionally. In fact, until a freshman writing seminar at Wake Forest, I never considered myself a wordsmith. Sure, I wrote witty emails to friends and the occasional short story I never showed anyone, but 96.5% of my written words appeared in history essays and legal memos. By the way, my high school English teachers rarely gave me As, and at Wake Forest, one of my history professors advised me to visit the writing center.

I may not have been a young writer, but I was definitely “imaginative.” This dictated letter was part of a series run by my kindergarten, San Antonio’s Acorn School.

I may not have been a young writer, but I was definitely “imaginative.” This dictated letter was part of a series run by my kindergarten, San Antonio’s Acorn School.

Seven years later, while working as a securities lawyer in London, I missed rapidly typing on the keyboard. I loathed my job and was hungry for creativity. Meanwhile, people from back home regularly emailed me to ask for London recommendations. I got tired of tweaking and sending the same message, so I decided to start a blog, which I called “An Expat’s Guide to London.” The guide got me excited about creative essays, photography, and reporting; and it paved the way for my travel writing career. Friends started reading it and sharing it with their networks; and compliments began trickling in (they weren’t all from my parents.) “You could do this for a living,” someone said. I laughed. My blog was a hobby— a creative outlet— nothing more.

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Then the financial collapse occurred. Work dried up overnight (a respite for those of us pulling regular all-nighters), and the position I hated was suddenly precarious. Lawyers lost their jobs left and right, and the London expat community suffered a Game of Thrones-esque bloodbath. When I learned that my firm was quietly open to voluntary redundancy, I threw my name in the hat. Unfortunately, I left the law firm just as the U.K. government altered various visa regulations, making it near-impossible for me to remain in London. I would have to move back to the U.S. and soon— my visa only had months remaining. I was devastated but focused on a silver lining: for the first time in my type-A life, I could take a break without feeling embarrassed or guilty, so I packed up my things, had them shipped to the U.S. (destination TBD), and flew to Africa—a place I’d wanted to visit since childhood— to volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary. Animals have always been a huge part of my life. I’m obsessed with them and may have pursued a career helping animals, but as a kid I thought only three such jobs existed: pet store owner, vet, or zookeeper.

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I now have a different cat, straighter teeth, and longer hair, but little else has changed.

I now have a different cat, straighter teeth, and longer hair, but little else has changed.

My experience in Namibia changed my life (read about it here). I began learning about conservation; I got back in touch with my true self; I decided I wanted a career of meaning; and my passion for writing/storytelling crystallized. I decided to spend my career supporting conservation through storytelling, which was incredibly ambitious and completely crazy. I had no educational nor professional experience in conservation or journalism. I was about to enter two fields that are notoriously difficult (for different reasons) while walking away from a career I had pursued for at least a decade. My parents were, shall we say, concerned. My peers couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to pair conservation and law. Why not become an environmental lawyer?

Contemplating freedom with one of the cheetahs residing at the sanctuary where I volunteered. This photo inspired a book I started writing but later shelved. “Recovering the Wild Heart” was the working title.

Contemplating freedom with one of the cheetahs residing at the sanctuary where I volunteered. This photo inspired a book I started writing but later shelved. “Recovering the Wild Heart” was the working title.

Today, as I sit in my London flat waiting for magazine editors to respond to story pitches, I wonder if I would be happier as an environmental lawyer. The transition would have been smoother, my life easier. But when I handed in a master’s dissertation on “conservation storytelling” in 2016, and published this follow-up via National Geographic two years later, I felt a profound sense of alignment. I didn’t merely hatch an idea in Namibia in 2009: I experienced a professional calling. Doubts and roadblocks will always arise, but it’s (relatively) easy to dismiss them when you know you are on the right path. As my favorite philosopher, Epictetus, said, “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do."

I titled this post “Full Circle” for two reasons: (1) ten years after starting “An Expat’s Guide to London,” I’m (finally) relaunching a blog; and (2) I do so with hopes of rediscovering the pleasure of self-publishing. Not long after I began writing professionally nine years ago, I lost some of my passion for writing as I adapted to editorial priorities. Meaningful features morphed into superficial round-ups, and I learned to pass up evergreen stories, knowing that few editors would commission news hook-free pieces. The two best stories I’ve ever become involved with never found homes. Thinking about them makes my stomach churn. At the same time, I hesitate to tell fledgling stories on my own channels when there’s a chance, however remote, that a publication will one day want them. I’ve attempted to adapt to shifts in publishing by, among other things, improving my photography skills and using Instagram as a stand-in for a blog, but after two years of doing so I’m forced to accept that very few people read beyond the first sentence of an Insta caption. With all of this in mind, I’ve decided to try blogging again, though I will still pitch stories to magazines and newspapers while continuing to regularly post photos on Instagram. I have no idea how frequently I’ll post here, but I hope to publish something at least once a month, and I’ll likely focus on photo essays. I hope to hear from you, and happy reading!

Millie Kerr