Jenny Bristol on Ken Burns and Choosing Your Own Path

Noodle Expert Jenny Bristol discusses Ken Burns' talent for storytelling and the beauty of forging your own academic and professional path.

Noodle Expert Jenny Bristol discusses Ken Burns' talent for storytelling and the beauty of forging your own academic and professional path.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I really struggle with questions that ask you to "pick just one" or state what your favorite anything is. I often have many favorites, because it depends on which aspect of my life I'm focusing on. So, for this question, I'll just pick one person who strongly represents one side of me. I would choose filmmaker Ken Burns to be my teacher for a year.

Ken Burns is so passionate about what he does that it shows through his work. With his guidance, I would learn to tell the story of history and how to use the medium of film to move people. I would want him to help me translate that skill so that I can use it for writing books.

Ken Burns doesn't tell you what you're "supposed to know" about history. He shares his process of discovery. This allows the passion of his learning experience to show through, since he creates the documentaries as he's learning about the topic. It's not about the subject; it's about how the story is told. Since Ken Burns is endlessly curious, it's contagious. I think we could feed off of each other's energy. I want him to teach me how to be a storyteller of nonfiction. His work is gripping, and I'd love to learn how to apply his skills to my writing.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

My mom taught me early on that it is vital to make sure you always have good credit. Pay your bills on time, even if it's just the minimum payment. Use your credit, but never past the point that you can afford. This great advice has allowed me to have options no matter what my financial situation has been, good or bad. The cushion that excellent credit gives you helps you float through the rough times, and provides opportunities during the fruitful times. Plus, it teaches financial and other kinds of responsibility.

Where would you send a student who hasn’t traveled before?

This would depend on the adventurousness of the student. If big changes make him or her feel unsettled, I would recommend starting easy, with Canada or New Zealand. Both locations have a wide variety of scenery, and the locals are generally very nice. Plus, language wouldn't be a barrier.

For students up for something a bit... more, I would suggest continental Europe. There are still plenty of English speakers if he or she gets into a jam, but everything the student sees will be in a different language, and it's amazing what difference that makes in one's experience. Europe is a place where you can truly immerse yourself in history.

If the student would rather be immersed in a culture very different from his or her own, I'd perhaps recommend going somewhere in the Andes mountains or in southeast Asia. I haven't been to either of those places, but they would likely be much more different from the student's life in the United States.

I do feel it is imperative to do some traveling in one's life, preferably starting at a relatively young age. It's an eye-opener to surround yourself with people who have incredibly different experiences from the ones we have in the United States. It's one thing to read about it, or see it on television. It's quite a different thing to be there in person.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I began college as a computer science major. I did quite well, and enjoyed most of the entry- and middle-level classes. But as I got into the more specialized classes, such as operating systems and compilers, I felt a little over my head. Or a lot over my head. At one point during my fifth semester in college, I realized that I didn't want to be a programmer. I was completely lost in one of the computer science classes I was taking, and I did something that I'd never done before: I stopped going to that class. I was almost entirely an A and B student in college. So why would I allow myself to get an F in a class for the first time ever?

I learned that it is OK to change your mind and it is OK to not be great at everything you attempt. At that point, I knew that I was moving across the country and transferring to another school. I also knew that, while credits transferred, grades did not. So the class that I stopped going to just wouldn't transfer. After my move, I went on to get a degree in American studies, happy to be spending my time learning about American history instead of how to program for computer hardware. I discovered that sometimes our choices just don't work out, and once you learn that a path you're on is no longer the path you should be on, don't be afraid to change direction. A path that isn't taking you where you want to go should be re-examined.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I actually sort of fell into my field, completely unintentionally. I had no expectations, really, because it happened so gradually. My path was thus: I chose my major in college because of my own personal interests, but did not know what work I wanted to find after college. I gathered skills while I had a series of jobs, loosely related to the fields of computers and publishing, because I had computer experience and a knack for proofreading and writing. As the internet became more and more of a thing, new types of work emerged. I continued establishing and nurturing relationships, because that's just what I do naturally, and I kept my eye out for opportunities. When I found work that I was capable of and that interested me, I applied or talked to the people involved. Inevitably, this opened more doors. I continue to grab onto opportunities that I find, and it is all coalescing into a career. Since I didn't have any specific expectations about my current career, I can't address that part of the question. But I can say this: Being able to craft my own career path has been the best thing that could have happened to me.

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