The idea for Radioactive RoadTrippin’ (R&R) came to me during a conversation with a friend, but it also was a powerful, visceral response of my subconscious to the internal notion that I’d somehow left a career in reducing the risks of nuclear weapons behind for good. I left my job at the Department of Defense to accomplish new dreams, but my premature departure from a life in DC and my 20+ year career in nuclear weapons came from many years of frustration and friction. I didn’t realize how much pain I was carrying around with me until I wrote a personal story about it. And I never would have written it without some outside prodding.
I didn’t realize how much pain I was carrying around with me until I wrote a person story about it.
In September 2020, I was fortunate to participate in an atomic storytelling workshop organized and hosted by Kate Folb at the Norman Lear Center’s Hollywood, Health, and Society. I was invited to join in part as a result of my status as a former NSquare Fellow, but by then, I’d also become known as a national security expert who writes fiction. The workshop was an opportunity to learn firsthand about telling stories about the field of nuclear weapons from Hollywood writers and producers–stories that would be able to reach real people without scaring them to death and therefore have impact. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we met virtually and took part in a series of writing exercises.
For our first exercise, we were asked to write an autobiographical story about some part of nuclear careers. We had about twenty minutes to come up with something. One of my favorite stories about the early years in my nuclear career popped into mind and before I knew it, I was writing a piece called Some Advice for My Younger Self, recently published on Inkstick Media. I started by jotting down the details of the moment in 2002 from my recollection. But as the week progressed, the story began flashing back between the past and the present. Writing the story stirred up all these negative emotions inside me–disappointment, shame, and anger.
Writing the story stirred up all these negative emotions inside me–disappointment, shame, and anger.
I was incredibly disappointed that I left what I’d long thought of as my dream career. From the moment I chose to focus my graduate studies on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), I knew that I wanted to make a real difference on nuclear weapons issues–to spend my life helping reduce the risk of nuclear war. But had I done that? When I thought of my younger self, I felt intense shame for giving up too soon, for letting my negative experiences shape my career decisions. But I also felt anger about those who should have supported me and helped me to advance, who instead actively put roadblocks in my way to stop me from having the impact I desired and who convinced me that maybe I should do something else.
My intense emotional response to writing a story caught me completely off guard and sent me sliding down a dark trajectory. Of course, it took place during a bumpy moment in my journey where I’d just lost my first client unexpectedly and been denied a mortgage. But how in the world had a story about my early career, which always brought me joy, suddenly triggered tremendous pain? Why should I now feel embarrassed about the decisions I’ve made? Had I somehow disappointed my younger self? Was I truly unhappy with all that I had accomplished? Was I really that worried about what others thought of me now?
Was I really that worried about what others thought of me now?
At that low point in my life, six months into an endless global pandemic, I saw my future prospects through a pretty bleak lens. I’d quit my secure job at the Department of Defense and left my established career in the nuclear weapons field to pursue lofty Hollywood dreams that seemed farther away than ever before. I’d thrown it all away, and for what? I’d moved to a remote, small, coastal town where I’d be easily forgotten in DC and never even known in Hollywood. Sixteen months after quitting my job, I should be much further along in my journey. Or at least, I should have some damn good ideas about how to transition to a career in film and TV. Right? Well, I had none. I’d gotten nowhere. I had no irons in the fire. And with the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting Texas that fall, I didn’t know when I’d ever get the chance to start something for real.
This moment of introspection was the starting point for R&R–it was ground zero for a rebirth. Had I not gotten so low, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to lean into the challenge that is to come.
Stories are powerful because they evoke emotion, and if you’re open to it, they can catalyze a change in your mindset or even in your life. Writing that story about my younger self made me realize how I saw the world back then and my important role in it. For fun, my colleagues and I would joke that we were superheroes in a way–working hard each day to save the world from terrible catastrophe. Someone had to do it, we said. That’s how I saw myself back then.
My colleagues and I would joke that we were superheroes in a way–working hard each day to save the world from terrible catastrophe.
I even began using WMDgirl as my alter ego in 2007 in the male-dominated world of Xbox 360 gaming. I chose my gamertag with that in mind (just imagine how that went over when I beat arrogant dudes in the multi-player Call of Duty). Several years later, I joined Twitter in 2014 and chose it as my handle. I’d grown fond of my gaming persona. I was also rather proud of becoming a leading female expert in national security and WMD. In some ways, the national security area is just as tough for women as the world of gaming.
When I launched my Authors of Mass Destruction podcast in 2019, I decided to bring my alter ego of WMD Girl to life as an actual cartoon superhero–teaching WMD by day and saving the world from destruction in her free time. Even more recently, I’ve incorporated WMD Girl into a graphic novel adaptation of my technothriller Rescind Order.
The work is far too important to let the twists and turns in my career detour derail my passion for doing something about the risks we face.
As I wrote that story about my early career, I remembered what I’d originally set out to do and rediscovered my inner superhero persona. I realized that there are still many ways that I could accomplish my goal of helping to prevent the worst from happening–my nightmare that we might lose everything we know and love in a single flash of a nuclear detonation. This work is far too important to let the twists and turns in my career detour derail my passion for doing something about the risks we face. Not everyone is born with the stomach for thinking about the apocalypse and the courage to act. But most of all, I felt the force of movement within my soul that is best expressed as a guttural roar: I’m not done yet.
Not by a long shot.
I’m now preparing to embark on a yearlong trip around the U.S. to visit past and current sites of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and produce a travelogue show about my journey. Departure is in T-215 days. Let’s do this.
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