Why the backstory matters (even mine)

Photo by Jesse Bussard

Photo by Jesse Bussard

Live your life like a tree. Grounded to the earth while reaching for the sky.
— Lisa Layden

When I interview people for the first time, I usually start with a line something like …

“So what’s your backstory?”

… or ...  “How did you get interested in X (i.e., whatever it is they do)?”

Barring some amazing revelation, the conversation then usually moves on to the main topic at hand and that’s that. Despite the short amount of time I typically spend on my interviewees’ back stories, though, this particular part of the conversation plays a more important role in the storytelling process than most would realize.

why the backstory matters

Origin stories, as they’re called often called in literature, give substance and insight into what makes a person who they are. In a story, they add to the narrative. In real life, it lets someone like me get a better understanding of who a person is and why they’ve chosen their particular path in life.

For us, humans, the more humble and triumphant these origin stories tend to be, the more we love them. There’s just something about an underdog that we can’t resist. We also just like to know how things happen, how they work, and how stuff came to be. We’re curious beings by nature.

When people meet me for the first time and I tell them I’m a freelance writer and editor, it sparks this same curiosity in them. They often ask how I got started doing what I do and are even more surprised when I tell them I did not go to school for journalism or writing of any kind. Recently, such a recent conversation got me thinking, I’ve never really delved into my origin story online (at least not to a great degree). So, I’d like to tell you a little more about how I ended up doing what I do today - telling stories and building communities.

my origin story

If you follow me on social media or have read some of my articles you may know I live in Montana. If you’re observant, you may also know I didn’t grow up there. I’m originally an Easterner, born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains of south central Pennsylvania. I’m the daughter of a logger and a farmer’s daughter, a child of divorce, and a woman, who despite the struggles and challenges I’ve faced over the years, continues to push forward and pursue my goals.

I don’t believe in giving up. I also believe if you are passionate about an idea enough, you can make it happen. It will probably take a lot of hustle, maybe unconventional means, and a hell of a lot of grit, but it is possible. I know because I’ve done it. I wouldn’t be doing what I do or living where I live today if I hadn’t.    

A little over 7 years ago, I was getting ready to start my last semester of undergrad. I’d already been accepted to grad school at the University of Kentucky and had full intentions of pursuing a Ph.D. That same year, I’d also gotten very involved in agriculture advocacy. I had taken to writing letters to the editor of our school newspaper, The Daily Collegian, refuting false claims about livestock that were being published in articles the paper was featuring. (You can read one of them here if you want.)

I, of course, shared the short write-up on social media and then carried on with my college life thinking nothing of it. What I didn’t know at the time, however, was one of these letters would catch the eye of an editor I had friended on social media months earlier. Jump ahead a few months to the fall, I was getting ready to graduate and I received a message from this same editor. She was in need of someone to take over a monthly op-ed column for her magazine which focused on equine retailers in the horse industry and she had thought of me. Me!?

taking a leap

Of course, I was intrigued. But I was also intimidated and unsure I was cut out for the task.

I mean, seriously! I was an animal science college undergraduate with absolutely zero journalism experience at the time. Who did I think I was even considering this idea? Being a writer was never part of “the plan.”

Despite my uncertainty, I decided to give it a go. I asked for examples of articles the past columnist had written along with a million other questions I’m sure the editor had answered a thousand times before to other would-be writers she’d met and gave it my best shot. I figured I had nothing to lose, other than the chance to try my hand at something new. And, hey, when you’re a poor college student, the thought of making some extra cash just by typing out some thoughts into a Word doc is pretty enticing.

Turns out, the editor loved my first column and that gig turned into a steady two-plus year streak of multiple monthly columns for the publication. All the while, I was trudging along through grad school, taking classes and doing research, on my way to getting the Masters degree I have today. Writing provided a nice supplemental income through those years and got me through some difficult financial times.

Along the way, I also realized I didn’t want to get a Ph.D. and opted to finish with a Masters instead. Then, I set my sights westward. I had a shoddy plan, a little money, and really no idea what I was doing, but I went anyway. All I knew was, I needed to be somewhere other where I was. I thought I’d figure it out along the way and I still had my writing for backup income.  

After defending my Master's thesis in late August 2012, my dad and I packed up my belongings in his truck and a U-Haul and he helped me move.  I ended up on a ranch in southeastern Idaho for a short stint managing grazing of about 3000 grassfed yearlings. However, it didn’t work out like I thought it would, so I moved on. I crashed with a friend in the Idaho panhandle for while, did a little traveling, and tried to figure out what was next.

finding my calling

When money got low, I got a little stressed. Then I realized, I still had my writing and in that moment knew, if there was one thing I could do, it was write articles for money. I believe this was the first inkling I had that I might one day be able to freelance write full-time. I started cold-emailing editors and eventually, I picked up a few writing gigs to get me by. Within a short time, I found a part-time job in Bozeman, MT with a well-respected rangeland consulting firm doing marketing and communications and again picked up my things and moved. Between writing and the part-time job, it kept me going.

Sadly, it wasn’t more than a year after starting at my new job that I found out it wouldn’t last. The owner was moving back to his family’s ranch in Wyoming and I’d have to find a job elsewhere come the following fall.

So, in that moment, I made a personal decision for myself. I loved Bozeman. I’d found a place that felt more like home to me there than anywhere else I’d ever lived. I could not and would not give that up. That’s a pretty big thing if you’re someone like me who’s never felt like they really belonged anywhere (more on that another time). I also decided that working for myself and more importantly, doing that through writing and other types of creative means, was important for me. I was determined to figure out a way to make it happen.

As one wise and stubborn Colorado rancher told me once, “Jesse, you’ll have a greater impact on the agriculture community and the world through your writing and communications talents than you ever will by trying to make it in production agriculture the way you have been.

What he meant was, if I wanted to create change and make a difference with my skills, I wasn’t going to do it by just grazing cows or working on a ranch somewhere. Instead, I needed to get outside my comfort zone, make new connections, meet others within and outside of the ranching industry, and tell their stories.

the hustle pays off

Fast forward one part-time job, a hell of a lot of hustle, and a lot of miles later and here I am. I’ve been writing freelance full-time for about three years now and have no intentions of stopping. Obviously, this is a cliffs notes version of my journey to becoming a writer and there’s a lot more to my story. But, we’ll have to get into that another time. The takeaway here is two-fold:

1) Just because you've never done something before doesn't mean you won't be good at it. Give it a try! You never know, it might be what you were born to do!

2) When you set your mind on a goal, believe in yourself, put in the time, and do the work, you can accomplish a lot.

To date, my writing has been published in over 16 well-known regional and national industry publications and I’ve worked with brands ranging from small town businesses to large global corporations. I’ve visited multi-million dollar legacy ranches and small family-owned operations. I’ve told countless stories, each and everyone starting with that same question, “So what’s your backstory?

I’m always on the lookout for another good story and I’m more passionate than ever about helping brands and people in the agricultural community and beyond tell their stories in holistic, thought-provoking, and meaningful ways.

If you’ve got a story that needs told or think I might be able to help bring a project to life, get in touch. I’d love to hear from you. Cheers!

PS... what's your origin story? And what other stories and things would you like to hear on here? Leave your stories and blog ideas in the comments below!