This week we share the stories of twins Sarah Joseph and Mara Rae Rutherford. Sarah is an Associate Producer for National Geographic TV and lives in Washington with her beloved dog Minky. Mara is working on her fifth novel, and lives with her husband and baby son Jack. Sarah and Mara contacted me independently to share their stories on Do What You Love – and then realised they had both done it. Amazing the connection twins have!
In 1992, my sixth grade English teacher made predictions about where our class would be in 20 years. According to her, next year I’ll be relaxing at my ranch (where I train Arabian horses) after just completing my fifth world tour to promote my best-selling books on the environment.
Despite her big plans for me, I’m not quite there yet (give me another 20 years). But what strikes me when I revisit that hand-bound document is how little I’ve changed—at least at my core—since I was twelve. I’ve had several loves from an early age: animals (especially horses), writing, and—thanks to my jet-setting parents—travel. Of course it took me some time before I found a way to combine my loves into an actual career.
As a young teen, I read about the field of ethology and decided I wanted to become an animal behaviorist. I wrote my high-school term paper about Australian wildlife; my college-entrance essay was on the role animals had played in my life so far. I went on to get my BSc in Wildlife Biology from UC Davis and moved to Australia in 2003 to complete a PhD in Animal Behavior (specifically on wild horse behavior and management).
But as much as I enjoyed scientific research, I realised fairly quickly that being an academic was never going to fulfill me completely. I started trying to think of ways that I could combine my passion for conservation with something more creative. I don’t remember the exact moment it hit me, but by the time I was about 20, I knew what I really wanted to do once I finished school: make wildlife documentaries for National Geographic.
In 2007 I moved back to my native Southern California. Armed with my PhD and a willingness to do whatever it took to get my foot in the door, I set out to conquer the world of natural history filmmaking.
And that’s where things really got difficult. Suddenly I was thrust into a world where there was no set path; connections were everything. I was horrified to learn that what you know isn’t nearly as important as who you know — and I didn’t know anyone. I bounced between my sister’s and parents’ houses, trying to find jobs in the film industry online. I took part-time work as a production assistant in San Diego but was forced to quit when my employer could no longer afford to pay me.
Later that year, I volunteered at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in Wyoming. It was one of the best decisions I could have made. There, for the first time in my life, I met people who had the same goals. I made some great friends and managed to rekindle a bit of passion for my dream. In early 2008 I moved to Santa Barbara to work as a production assistant for someone I’d met at Jackson Hole. I also took a job at the community college as a lab tech and found an internship with a local film company. I started dating someone, made new friends, and though I knew it wasn’t a long-term destination, I started to get…comfortable.
Then fate stepped in. I’d been offered the opportunity to try out as a Biology instructor at the city college. A few days before my “audition,” I was working late in the lab and overhead a conversation between a soon-to-be-retired professor and a student.
The student said, “I can’t imagine how hard it must be to be a teacher. I don’t know how you’ve done it all these years.”
The teacher replied, “You have to teach because you can’t not teach. That’s the only way you can put up with all of the hard stuff that goes along with it.”
The teacher wasn’t speaking to me, but he might as well have been. I realised right then that I did not feel that way about teaching; I felt that way about making wildlife documentaries. I gave notice the next day and made plans to move to Washington, D.C., by the end of the summer. I set up twelve informational interviews in a two-week visit in August, nabbed an internship for the Natural History Unit at National Geographic TV, and moved there two weeks later. I’ve been slowly climbing my way up the Nat Geo ladder ever since.
I believe that things happen for a reason, but there are definitely some choices I could have made to make the path a little smoother.
Here’s my advice for people trying to break into a competitive industry:
1) Intern. Nowadays, with so many people having at least a Bachelor’s degree, it’s easy to be overqualified and under-experienced. I spent a lot of time during my undergrad doing independent scientific research projects, which definitely helped me get into graduate school, but I wish I’d taken a month or two to intern at a production company like Nat Geo as well. My education does serve me well now when I’m doing research or speaking to scientists at work, but ultimately my lack of film experience meant I had to start at the very bottom as an unpaid intern despite having an advanced degree.
2) Intern while you’re still in school. Once you’ve graduated, it is extremely difficult to find an internship. I actually had to re-enroll in community college so that I could earn credits and be eligible for a spot at Nat Geo.
3) Put yourself where you want to be. If prospective employers see an out-of-town phone number or address on your resume, they are extremely unlikely to consider you. D.C., for example, is really the hub of the documentary film industry in the US. I wish I’d taken the risk and moved out here sooner. Granted, moving to a new place is scary, but I think you have to put it out there to the universe that you are willing to do your part to make your dreams come true. I’ve been repeatedly surprised at how life has rewarded me when I’ve taken the initiative and stopped procrastinating.
4) If you don’t have the right connections, make them. This is one thing I actually did right—I told everyone I met what I wanted to do as a career. I figured eventually someone would know someone who would help me out. And one day, it worked; a semi-distant relative went to church with someone who worked at Nat Geo (literally, that was my “in”), who passed my resume on to several people. That led to two interviews and from those, I got my internship.
(Sarah saw this bracelet in a boutique when shopping with her mother before she moved to DC. She jokingly told her mother if she didn’t buy it for her, she was going to tattoo the message on herself. Her mother bought her the bracelet, but she still just might get the tattoo one day. It reads, “Follow your passion.” Photo credit: Sarah Joseph)
In the last two years, I’ve gradually worked my way up to my current position as Associate Producer. There have been sacrifices along the way: besides leaving my family and friends, the primary sacrifice has been financial; following my dream would have been nearly impossible without the support of my family. This is also a highly competitive industry—we all work very hard for little pay, and the work is generally far from glamorous. But I do feel a huge sense of pride walking into our building every day, knowing that I work for a company that really has the power to “inspire people to care about the planet.”
My long-term goal is to write and produce my own natural history films. I’d like to bring aspects of popular culture, such as music, to my films in order to make them more mainstream and appealing to younger audiences. I believe all artists are storytellers—they just choose different mediums to help tell their stories. Television and film not only allow me share the beauty of the natural world with millions of people, but to combine my personal passions and lead a fulfilling life. No doubt I am very fortunate to do what I love.
Mara Rae Rutherford
I wrote my first “novella,” Mary Got Married, when I was eleven years old. It was about — wait for it — a girl named Mary who gets married. Despite my obvious natural talent for fiction, I never gave serious consideration to a career in writing. While I have always loved to read, I knew that a major in English Literature was probably not the best foundation for a successful career. I instead chose the wildly lucrative discipline of Cultural Anthropology for my undergraduate degree, followed by a Master’s in Cultural Studies.
Unfathomably, I found myself unemployed a mere year after graduation. I was living in a small town in south Texas with my fiancé, John, and jobs were few and far between. After I taught myself how to knit, sew, paint and, thanks to Martha Stewart Living, make beaded flowers, the idea for a book started to take shape in my mind. I had no idea if I could write a novel — I hadn’t even written a short story since childhood. But once I got going, the characters seemed to take on lives of their own, and within six months I had my first novel. At nearly 400 pages, it remains the longest thing I’ve ever written and probably the worst, but I learned a lot about writing in the process; most importantly, I learned that I had what it takes to write a book.
My husband is in the U.S. Marine Corps, which means we move a lot. Over the next few years, I found myself unemployed on several occasions, and I used that time to write two more novels and educate myself as much as possible on the publishing process. I took any job I could find that had anything to do with books (including one at a scientific publishing company and another at a book distributor), I interned at a literary agency while working full time, I attended a writing class and a writers conference, and I convinced a bestselling author I met through work to take a look at the third novel I’d written. When she sent it personally to her literary agent in New York, I thought my dreams were finally going to come true. Unfortunately, that genre of novel wasn’t selling at the time, and while the agent told me that she thought I was a great writer and would one day have a novel published, she advised me to put the book in a drawer and write something else. Not exactly the words I was hoping to hear.
When we moved to Virginia in 2008, I was unemployed yet again. After a couple of months of sulking, I finally mustered up a new plot and enough enthusiasm to start over. I had only written about half of the book when a job opportunity (writing and editing for a Marine Corps magazine) came up, and as much as I enjoyed writing fiction, I was still feeling discouraged about the last book. I also wasn’t really in the position to turn down a paycheck, so I did the sensible thing and took the job. Soon after, John and I found out we were pregnant, and by the time the morning sickness wore off and I had enough energy to get back to writing, I only had about four months until my due date. I wrote furiously over the next few months and miraculously, a month before our son was born, I finished the manuscript. I spent 2010 taking care of Jack full time and continued working for the magazine from home. I also edited my novel several times, started querying agents, and trained for and completed my first marathon. I even managed to take a few showers somewhere in there.
(The “office” Mara created in her basement. Now that her writing time is limited, Mara finds it extremely helpful to have her own space to work in. Having a pretty desk doesn’t hurt either. Photo credit: Mara Rae Rutherford)
When I sat down to write that first novel seven years ago, I honestly believed writing a book was the hardest part of becoming a published author. I quickly learned that talent is only a small part of the equation; perseverance and luck are equally, if not more, important. I read somewhere that only one percent of people who set out to write a novel actually complete it, and I’m willing to bet fewer than one percent of those people actually have their book published. I have spent months editing my novels based on feedback from writer friends and agents, spent countless hours researching agencies and tailoring submission packages to their specifications, and then spent months (and months and months) waiting for a response.
As I was writing this I turned to my go-to editor, my twin sister, Sarah, for advice. Always diplomatic, she said that my piece was perhaps a bit negative, that I might want to focus on the positive side of “doing what I love.” But the thing is, doing what you love isn’t always easy. I think that’s how I figured out that this really is what I want to do with my life—because if I didn’t truly love writing, I’d have given up a long time ago. After every rejection letter, I allow myself a few hours to feel sorry for myself and lament that this is all just too difficult; then I send out two more query letters. Every time I think I can’t face writing another novel only to see it languish at the bottom of a desk drawer, a new character emerges from the ether. “Sorry to interrupt,” she says, “but I think you need to hear this.”
Sometimes doing what you love requires a leap of faith (or so says Sarah). I recently quit my job so I can use whatever free time I have to write, and I am truly blessed with a husband who supports my dream and a baby who is a champion napper. Some day I hope I can look back on this time and say that it was worth the struggle. Doing what you love and getting paid for it? Now that’s what I call a dream come true.
In the meantime, I’m hard at work writing my fifth novel.
Read more about Mara’s life as a writer on her blog Scribble Babble.