The morning I became a real college professor, I met Meg Carney. She was one in a cohort of fifteen undergraduate teaching majors who were sizing up their newly-hired advisor and instructor. They were now in the business end of their degree program; liberal education and literature courses were giving way to classes about teaching and field experiences in schools. The profession was getting real.
The students in that class had the chance to practice and compare several genres of writing by crafting a multigenre research essay, and Carney wrote hers about rock climbing. Already an avid climber, she used the project to ask questions and learn more, but she also used it to inspire and to teach, conveying the experience of climbing and the essentials that a newcomer might need in order to take a risk and give the sport a try. A year later, she contacted me about developing a submission for the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics; while studying abroad in Chile, she had been moved by the student protest movement that was calling for government-funded higher education. She didn’t have time to draft a reflective essay from scratch and revise it carefully for submission to a national writing contest, but the issue was important to her, and she thought it might be important to others. That’s what writing was for, so she made time to do it. I couldn’t wait to see her bring that orientation toward purposeful, authentic writing to her future students.
Ten years later, Carney is not a public school English teacher in Minnesota. She is not a classroom teacher of any subject anywhere. Her journey from undergraduate English Education major to who she is today would take her from Minnesota to Colorado, Utah, North Carolina, Arizona, and Washington state, and through industries that include Wilderness Therapy, forestry, climbing, and farmer’s market management. What she would find over those ten years was a way to bring her skills in teaching, writing, and storytelling to subjects that she is passionate about—and to do it on her own terms.
Looking back on that college classroom in 2012, Carney recalls, “I honestly thought I was going to be a teacher forever. I thought this was absolutely what I wanted to do with my life.” Like so many pre-service English teachers, she connected with reading and writing, and she’d had a few early teaching experiences that affirmed her growing interest in working with people. Her coursework, teacher candidate cohort, and field experiences all further energized her to teach. Soon after graduating mid-way through the academic year, she landed the substitute teaching experience that no one gets: a long-term sub position teaching English for a teacher who remained in the room with her every day (but was physically incapacitated from leading class), offering feedback and authority while Carney found her way. The stars seemed aligned for a smooth transition into full-time teaching.
That summer, Carney moved in with a cousin in Colorado and was hired to teach Humanities at a charter school—where she ran into the other sort of teaching experience. “I believed in the school’s mission and I liked the staff. They did their best to support me with what they had, but right from the get-go, I felt like I was set up for failure as a first-year teacher. I was out of my element teaching the social studies aspect of Humanities, and the student body was too challenging for me. The position would have been better suited to a more experienced educator—someone who had developed curriculum and didn’t have to prep everything [from scratch] every day.” She left the school mid-way through the year.
What does a newly minted English teacher do once she stops teaching English? For Carney, the next step would have to draw on her skills while allowing her to pivot to something more invigorating than the experience she had just had. “One of my friends from the Duluth area worked in education, but in the outdoor industry. She said, ‘Hey, we’re doing this job in Utah. We know that you just had kind of a hard time with teaching, but that you’re still passionate about it. So maybe just try teaching in a new setting, and it will work better for you.’”
With that, Carney soon found herself working Wilderness Therapy in Utah, leading groups of youth on expeditions to learn survival skills. She worked alongside therapists, as many of her students struggled with behavioral issues and trauma. “I had really good days and really bad days—I think that’s true for any job. The environment in general was smaller-group, and I feel like I had a little more direction. And the overall camaraderie between the staff was so strong; a lot of those people that I met my first year there are still my best friends to this day. So I think that that was the right path for teaching for me: outdoors.”
Wilderness therapy gave Carney a connection to the outdoors, smaller-group instructional setting and a closer bond with colleagues—all things that she valued after an overwhelming experience with traditional classroom teaching. But during the week-long off periods between periods in the field, Carney found herself missing the content area that got her started in teaching. “I wanted to re-integrate writing into my life. I knew that freelance writing existed, but I didn’t really know much about it. I just knew that there were all of these things that we were learning to do in the outdoors—things that I never knew how to do before I worked in outdoor rec—and I felt like I could teach people.”
To do that, she first had to teach herself how to break into the crowded, nebulous world of freelance writing; tellingly, for someone who has hiked, climbed, camped, and lived outdoors all over the country, it was the freelance writing space that she likened to “the Wild West.” Her first attempts at pieces were bushcraft how-to—guides to outdoor activities. She established herself on the Upwork platform, Googled “how to be a freelance writer,” and started learning. She learned that “you’re going to be paid like crap at the beginning, because you have to build a portfolio.” She learned that, absent such a portfolio, some of her college writing could help show her first clients that she can be trusted to write clearly and grammatically. She learned that saying yes to just about any writing job, and working for free at first, would help her get a foot in the door. She learned about search engine optimization—writing for Google bots at the same time that she was writing for human readers. And she learned the power of finding a niche, establishing herself as an “expert” in, say, the outdoor industry.
Outside of writing, Carney’s work experience was all over the map, literally and figuratively. Some jobs were temporary, prompting a move to something else. But more broadly, “I wanted to experience new places and explore outdoor recreation in various parts of the country.” She was willing to live simply in order to explore widely; “There were several shorter stints of living in my car or out of a tent, just vagabonding and finding my way to my next landing place.”
Around 2019, with her itinerant work history limiting her job prospects, Carney decided to take the risk of supporting herself exclusively through freelance writing. “The first couple of months were really kind of difficult, but because I had established myself as a freelancer for several years, I had a lot of work to show people, so I was able to get clients relatively easily.” Her beat spanned health and wellness, outdoor recreation, and environmentalism, with an increasing focus on the latter two.
As her portfolio grew—she developed a website to showcase that portfolio—Carney began to take stock of what her writing career was making possible, as well as what was still missing. “I had niched down pretty hard in the outdoor industry, and I felt confident writing those topics, and I enjoyed most of them. But I also felt like I wasn’t really able to really highlight or talk about the things that were most important to me. Working in different areas of the outdoor industry, environmentalism and conservation comes up a lot, but I also noticed a lack of real-world application or actionable steps for people or businesses to be taking.” She wanted to write about environmentalism, the outdoor industry, and animal rights, and she trusted that “all of these things are really related to me in my life, and if they’re related in my life, I know that it relates to other people.”
She started with some blog posts, which gave her the freedom to explore that nexus of topics in a different writing style than she was being paid for. “That was the turning point in my freelance writing, to help me find more clients that I really aligned with. People would search for writers on somewhere like Linkedin or Google, and that would bring them to my website, and after they’d click through the work I’d been paid to write, they’d get to my blog, and some of them could say, ‘Oh, she also can talk about materials used in the outdoor industry and their application in sustainability,’ or ‘Oh, she can talk about animal rights in this way.’”
Among that new batch of interested clients was an editor with Falcon Guides, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield publishing company. The editor was interested in hiring a writer to develop a zero-waste backpacking guide, and they saw in Carney’s portfolio and blog a mix of passion and experience that seemed like a promising fit. The editor pitched the idea to Carney, and after a few further conversations, Carney submitted a proposal for a book that would represent her own slant on the topic. In her view, zero-waste backpacking was a commitment that most people were unlikely to make, but related concepts like minimalism, essentialism, and “leave no trace” were more approachable. Carney set to work researching the outdoor industry, interviewing environmental experts, and developing the vision that would become Outdoor Minimalist.
Carney worked hard on the book, with the pandemic helpfully (if hearbreakingly) clearing away other commitments and making space for a consuming solo project. As drafting led to revision and final copyediting, two thoughts weighed on her. First, publicizing the book was going to be, in part at least, her job; what would be a productive way to get the word out? Second, just as her freelance writing steered her into a professional niche that didn’t overlap perfectly with her passions, “I was slightly pigeonholed in writing the book.” Specifically, with the book’s focus on individual action, how could she now complement that focus with a broader push for industry action? As she mulled this over, Carney reflected on what a fan she is of podcasts. “I listen to them almost constantly, like while I’m working, doing chores, on walks, driving. I thought, I should create a podcast where I interview other industry experts about this topic and then they can share it with other people, because then I’m building on this concept—and I can indirectly publicize my book.”
Now this English teacher who learned to be an outdoor educator, this outdoor educator who learned to be a freelance writer, this freelance writer who learned to write a book—now she needed to learn podcasting. “And podcasting is really hard. I make mistakes all the time.” She had the advantage of a brother with a background in journalism and editing, and she hired a podcast consultant who specialized in the outdoor industry.
She also brought her own skills to the endeavor: “The area I really excelled in was the planning process for each episode, and that’s because I had this background in writing. A couple of my episodes are scripted, and I planned the entire script like I would an article. And then I have another episode that’s like a radio sketch, like a skit, and I pulled a lot of things that I learned about dialogue in my college Writing Fiction class. And then because I had conducted interviews for different articles, I also could apply that to my actual interview process for the people that were coming onto my show. And so how to frame the questions, and keep them talking about things, and not make it so much about how I feel about what they’re saying, but get them to elaborate on those things.”
At the same time, the logistical and editing sides of podcast production were less familiar. “I didn’t really know anything about audio equipment, or how to make things sound better. And I also didn’t know about how to publish podcasts or the importance of things like the show notes, because much like digital content that you search for on Google, the show notes can be optimized so they’re easier for people to find. There are a lot of moving parts, and I understand why big podcasts have a big team.” At the same time, she draws comfort from how new and varied podcasts are. “Podcasting is always changing, and continuously growing, so there’s not a right or wrong way to do it.” As of this writing, her Outdoor Minimalist podcast has published 33 episodes.
Meg Carney is someone who any college would love to claim: she has learned how to learn, she applies her skills across contexts, and as she eagerly relates, “Every single day, I use multiple things that I learned at college in my everyday life.” With that attitude, and with a book set to drop in a few months, I can just hear my university’s marketing department scrambling to put her on a poster.
But her journey also makes me think about what it means to be an English teacher—not as a job description, but (I’m going to say it) in a person’s heart. At heart, I think, an English teacher sees the power of communication, and wants to use it to help other people expand what is possible for them. An English teacher values storytelling and is curious to learn the process and power of storytelling in all its forms—in a classroom, in the outdoors, in an article, in a book, in a podcast. Since stories and storytellers are everywhere, an English teacher sees their content area all around them. And an English teacher knows that the tools of literacy are climbing tools; they can take us places. Where do we find an English teacher at heart ten years into life as a grown-up? Sometimes, we find them ten years into a classroom teaching career. Other times, we find them unbound from a classroom, teaching, listening, writing, telling stories, out there somewhere.
Carney’s book, Outdoor Minimalist: Waste Less Hiking, Backpacking and Camping, is available now for pre-orders and will be released on September 1, 2022.
Listen to new episodes of her companion podcast every Monday.
Learn more about the author on our 2022 Contributors page.