Dream of the Month…An MFA Student’s Journey through 2014

I had really good intentions of sending out a Christmas letter this past year.

Really, I did.

You know, the kind of letter that summarizes the past year of your life while spreading comfort and joy to all its recipients. I entertained all sorts of inspiring and hopeful messages, well-equipped from my years of serving as the Kuehn family Christmas scribe. But based on 2013’s long-lost Christmas cards, there was still a chance I might not follow through.

tree card

Christmas has come and gone, but before too much of January slips away, I decided to punch out a summary of my 2014:

Dear friends and family and people who read,

Season’s greetings. I am finding that all of the old adages about the passing of time are proving true, and here it is the start of another year, exciting and terrifying as that is.

Though I do not speak with many of you as often as I would like, I am increasingly appreciative of the gift of connection, the way it has shaped me, and the life that it brings.

I am (again) in a stage of life that revolves around the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I am more excited than I have been previously to answer this question, though the answer changes on roughly a monthly basis.

Naming the Blessing

This is Oakland…a small piece of it


To set a little context, I am living in Oakland, California and pursuing a Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative non-fiction writing at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga. Non-fiction is a broad field that includes memoir, personal essays and journalism among other things. I started my degree September of 2013 and will graduate in May of 2015. During my time in CA I have worked as a writing tutor, math tutor, contributing writer, freelance editor and workshop facilitator.

But that is what I’ve done already.

Back to the question of what I hope to do next, a question that shaped 2014.

January 2014 — Food Critic

It is hard to believe that I have not always loved food with the voraciousness I do now. Last January I took a one-month intensive class on food writing. We covered personal narratives and restaurant critiques, food tours and ethical eating. I found that I not only enjoyed food writing, I was also fairly good at it. Describing the texture of freshly baked rye bread or the flavor of stoneground mustard was as easy as discussing the weather, as natural as small talk. I began to photograph my meals with more intention and composed forkfuls of flavor for my friends and family. Writing about food became therapy. I started a food blog (which is currently under construction), and began writing food articles for a local newspaper. Food writing became a new and viable option.


February — Adjunct Professor

In February I started a pedagogy course on teaching writing, exploring new ideas in essay instruction and cross-cultural interaction. I implemented what I learned at Acalanes High School, where I work as a tutor in the Writing for Mastery Program. My high school students were great and I thoroughly enjoyed working with them. Teaching collegiately was one of the reasons I went back to school, having always felt more at home in school than out of it. I developed a hypothetical curriculum and reflected on the reasons I wanted to be a professor. In February this was all very exciting, but by the end of the semester my dreams were changing.


March — Author Extraordinaire

In March I attended the annual conference for American Writers and Poets (AWP) in Seattle. At AWP everyone is a writer. Everyone has a story to share and a book to sell. Some were generous in offering advice and giving suggestions, but there is often an air of insecure competition when you have too many aspirations in a concentrated space. More than the actual conference, I loved Seattle. I loved writing in its cozy warm coffee shops and staring out the rain-streaked windows. Some friends and I visited the Chihuly Museum and the Space Needle, Pike Place Market and some smashing local eateries. At the start of the conference I took my writing too seriously. By the end, I may not have taken it seriously enough.


April — Social Media Assistant

In April I interviewed for a position as the social media manager for a literary agent near Marin City. I knew next to nothing about social media, but the agent had an office in SF and another in Paris, which seemed somehow providential for someone like me. Following the initial phone interview, I joined Twitter, which little-by-little has been changing the way I find and consume content. After calculating the drive time and tolls, I turned down the internship, but I kept my Twitter account. I don’t Tweet often, but I do end up accessing all sorts of information, reading all kinds of articles and re-evaluating the way we share the news of our lives and our world.


Yes, I did Tweet-and-Run at Bay to Breakers

May — Tech…User

It’s difficult to adequately describe my evolving relationship with technology, one which has changed dramatically in the past two years. I am no expert. Not even close. I hardly feel informed. What I am is intrigued, absolutely fascinated by 3D printers and Apple watches, virtual reality and personal robots. I am touched when I see technology used to bridge gaps and make connections, when GoPro cameras capture the experience of being homeless or new apps connect the hungry with surplus food from restaurants. Mind blown. Over and over. In May, an editor from WIRED magazine visited my campus and piqued my interest in both tech and magazine writing. I don’t always keep current (I don’t even think I can), but I try to ride the waves, and I am giddy when I see them coming.


June — Journalist

After the semester came to a close, I deliberately decided not to get a job (which is a very hard thing when you are an achievement-oriented person). Instead, I cleaned my apartment, read a bunch of features, conducted a slew of interviews and upped the number of articles I was writing and pitching to local newspapers and magazines. A lot of them were published. A lot of them weren’t. Some of them can be found using the page tabs of this website. There is a whiteboard in my bedroom markered with assignments and ideas. Though I complain about the associated deadlines, what I’ve found more and more is how much I love being a journalist and how well-suited I feel for it. The connecting and researching and fact-checking and synthesizing—I find it all great fun. It puts me in flow more quickly than anything.


July — Blogger

In addition to writing, I spent a lot of my summer blogging, which was easy to take with me when I was at the beach or back in the Midwest. In July I moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress. I added a bio and spent days linking articles and picking font styles, thinking about business cards and brand marketing and what it means to have a writing persona. I gained a handful of followers, but mostly I wrote. I learned a lot about my own writing habits and produced some of my favorite posts, including one about my sister’s wedding and another about my lost sense of wanderlust. I blogged about movies and technology and going to the beach and getting my oil changed. And though mostly I blogged for myself, I began to think about blogging for my readers.


This is my new baby. His name is Adam. He is my constant companion whenever I am blogging.


August — Content Writer

In August my resume when through a major overhaul as I began looking into jobs in the area of content writing and brand storytelling, fields that I had never heard of, but that are rumored to be numerous in the land of the startup (i.e., San Francisco). I researched tech companies on the peninsula and corporations in the city, spoke to professionals in the field and began following new newsfeeds. Another month, another dream—and this one came with a paycheck.


I also read this book. Possibly the best of my summer.


September — Senior Citizen Specialist

My first assignment as a contributing writer with the Lamorinda Weekly was to cover a lecture on hearing aids. New to the paper, I was happy to write anything. From that point on I was given senior citizen pieces ever few issues. I developed a relationship with the head of the senior services department in Lafayette and made connections with wonderfully interesting people. Before I knew it, I had unofficially begun covering the “seniors beat.” Less than a year after that first article, I began teaching a senior memoir class called Document Your Life Story, which re-formed my ideas and challenged my assumptions about people, teaching, writing and advocacy.


October — Spiritual Writing

It is difficult to shorthand a spiritual journey, even just a year of it. I haven’t written all that much about my faith in specific, though the subject of it often comes out in the form of the hope, truth or promise that permeates the pain and uncertainty in my writing. Somewhere in October I began crafting essays about my faith to turn in for workshop. Somewhere in November I was invited to guest blog on the topic of being single. By the end of the year I started considering the overlap of faith and writing. In an area where it is so easy to offer cliches, I find it is vital to be honest.

photo 1 (1)

November — Travel Writer

December of 2013, I attended my first Weekday Wanderlust, a reading series in SF that attracts a slew of local writers and editors and travelers. For the first several months, the event intimidated and discouraged me, but time and experience have eased my anxiety. I’ve traveled enough to satisfy me for a good long while, but writing about those experiences has sometimes been a challenge. That changed this fall and travel writing became exciting. It seemed possible, maybe even necessary. For perhaps the first time, my choice to take so much time off between degrees felt planned rather than accidental, as if it had been preparation rather than distraction.


December — Advocate

As much as I’ve loved covering just about every subject I’ve written on in the past year, the place I find most meaning is in advocating for others. In November I started volunteering to blog for Because Justice Matters (BJM), a nonprofit in SF’s Tenderloin District that serves women in the area. I am amazed at the work of this organization and amazed at the stories I get to help share. This year I’ve also been exposed to the incredible stories of several individuals who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Special needs of any kind is not an issue that I’ve dealt with much in the past, but the more I learn about it, the more I see hear about it. Last week I interviewed a young man who will be speaking on this topic during his book tour next week. He was good to remind me of how much I assume. He was good to share with me how much he has learned. And he was good to instill in me that we all have something to share.


So, there you have it—my year in summary. For as much as my writer’s life is “all about me,” the most meaningful part of my work has always been the people who inform it and the stories that they make possible. In carrying the stories of others alongside my own I find there is much to learn and much to share, that one life here in Oakland can be connected to many far beyond.

I appreciate that yours is one of them and wish you all the best in the year ahead,

A. K. Carroll