Why I Write: Introducing Co-Founder Rachel Wilhelm
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
If someone wrote a story about you, what would it say?
Mine would start with me growing up a pretty good kid. I think so, at least. When I did get in trouble at home or in school, there was often a book in the middle of the mess. In third grade, I was sent home with a detention slip when I was caught reading a fiction book hidden inside my open math book. As I got older, I’d often stay up well past my bedtime under my covers with a flashlight and a book, and getting caught turned into an issue as the skylight above my bed gave me away to my parents that slept a story above our wing of the cabin. My dad had a hard time punishing me until my love of stories got in the way of other studies and my grades slipped. My elaborate fibs to get out of trouble with my siblings were also a reflection of the places my vivid imagination took me.
For a long time I would get angry that the people in the books I read had much more exciting lives than where I was living in rural Ohio. I could only dream of what else was out there. That only made me read more, traveling through the pages to faraway places. In the fourth grade I won an award for reading more pages than any other middle schooler in our county. Small town girl, big world feels. Looking back now, I can laugh at how excited I was, but part of my adult heart still swells when I feel that memory warm my soul. I had found a way to travel around the world, meet fabulous people, and go on so many epic adventures from the comfort of my bedroom for the cost of of a library card. Unknowingly, I harnessed these emotions and began writing in middle school. At first, it was just my way to keep my grades up, going above and beyond for book reports and English assignments. But by junior high, I was on staff for our school paper, writing short stories, poems, song lyrics, you name it—I embraced my reputation as being a nerd.
Changing to a public high school as a private school kid was hard enough without the fact that I started taking college classes my junior year. I wouldn’t have labeled myself as an academic at this point in my life—I was too distracted by boys, getting a job, recreational drinking, and the occasional blunt to really think about my future. However, my dad was a college professor and my parents pushed me through the hardest years of my life in the pursuit of higher education, even as I rebelled.
I realized quickly that being a teenager on a college campus three days a week had its perks. At the college, professors were emotional and passionate about what they were teaching, instead of being stuck in the drudgery of the public school system that often robbed high school teachers of their creative influence. Here, in the halls of higher education, students could voice their opinions and ideas without being ridiculed and questioned. Was this what being an adult felt like? The days I was stuck at my high school campus had me feeling stranded, surrounded by people my age that didn’t understand me, and I yearned for the 45 minute drive to the college. I even got over the embarrassment of my dad popping his head into classes to make sure I wasn’t skipping, as it was the same college he taught at.
Once I had finished my core classes and graduated high school, I started to narrow down my focus on the big question: “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Since there wasn’t a degree for “veterinarian/world traveler/author/artist” I decided to go with visual arts and communication. I had always loved art and often recreated the places I read about on paper with a pencil or paintbrush. My other lifelong passion of horses often wove it’s way in and out of both my art and writing, and when I got stuck with either, I’d find myself at the barn talking it through with one of my best friends. She never said anything back, but it made me feel better whispering my deepest desires and secrets into her mane while I lay on her bareback. We’d wander around the pasture like this—me talking, her eating grass and swishing flies away with her tail. I think it was this relationship that made me question my career path and rebel against the idea of having a “normal” job and life. So halfway through my last semester, and only months from completing my degree, I took a leap of faith and moved to south-eastern Ohio, transferring to a small college that had a specialized equestrian degree program. I had found heaven on earth. But just like in one of my books, there was conflict ahead.
Without going into heartbreaking detail and to keep it short, I didn’t meet a prince and fall in love. Rather, a dark knight, so to speak, whose intentions were rather vague until I discovered that at nineteen, I was pregnant. Not in love or having any of my shit together, this was bad. Looking at this from a reader’s perspective, this is the paragraph where I would have held my breath and closed the book to pause before continuing. But this was real life, and hitting pause wasn’t an option. My choice at that very moment would change the trajectory of not only my career, but my entire life. Settle down and work things out with someone who scared me, hurt me—physically and emotionally—and stifled my creativity and adventurous spirit, or run away? When neither of those options felt right, I turned my story on it’s bindings and started a new chapter, having no idea what I was doing. Adoption made sense. My parents were ready to help support me, but I could hear the concern in their voice when I cried about my dreams falling apart and the fear of her father. It’s not that I didn’t want to be a mother, it was just that I wanted to be so many OTHER things, too. I couldn’t fathom the idea of terminating the pregnancy either. Knowing I had to protect this tiny person from a dark life I would surely be surrendering her to if I stayed with her father, my emotions stoked a fire to prove something to her. I carried her for nine months and delivered her to a family that had only dreamt of having a family of their own, and wanted to keep me as a part of theirs. From darkness to light. This was my new chapter, my plot twist.
So I worked harder. Pushed myself further. Graduated with top grades and only a year behind the other students in my program. I wrote as much as I could, letting my frustrations, anger, and pain move my pen. I never asked for handouts
or extra help, I just kept my head down and worked harder. I took on awful part-time jobs to make enough to chip away at loan payments and rent. Here, I have to stress I could not have done this without the encouragement of my parents and supportive teachers—I was privileged. Not many women have the opportunity to make the choices I was able to because of my privilege, even coming from a working-class blue-collar family, in a rural part of an agricultural state. I lost friends and acquaintances because of my choice, but this only added fuel to my fire of proving everyone and the statistics wrong. I wanted my daughter to be proud of the path I took after making such a heavy decision. And though my passion to succeed was initially for her, it turned into a drive to succeed for myself.
I moved to Asheville a year after graduation to take a breather from the trauma the last couple years had dealt me and to distance myself from the place that had caused me so much pain. The mountains are healing in so many ways, and days of hard labor on a ranch, working with horses and my best friend, closed up many of the wounds I had let fester on my journey. Along with writing, I picked up a camera and began capturing the moments and beauty around me for my own pleasure. My writing style changed as I healed, and began to focus on the beauty around me—returning to the dream-like state that echoed my earliest writings as a child. When I moved to Knoxville in 2012, it was still under the direction of continuing my professional career with horses. I found an amazing job that allowed me to ride and teach and express myself in a beautiful environment, which led to wonderful and influential relationships. I met the love of my life in the form of a fly-fishing guide, Russell, at the farm, made new friends, and started writing for a local magazine. My photography was growing, too, as I became published. Horses still held my heart, but the ability to write about and photograph the things I loved and knowing that people wanted to read my words made my ambitions soar. There were some big things on my horizon.
Meeting Tracy was a defining moment for me. Her smile, spirit and energy attracted my better qualities and brought them out. We went from practicing yoga and getting coffee, to working part-time for a marketing firm together, taking baby steps back towards my goal of using my unfinished communications degree. We worked so well together, it seemed organic to merge our talents and start taking on our own clients. As life got busier, I began to take more frequent trips to mountains to clear my mind. One night camping solo in the mountains of North Carolina, I sat shivering in my hammock watching my campfire smoke drift through the trees to the starry sky overhead, trying to clear my mind. Just being under the trees listening to the mountains breathe brought my racing mind under control. That moment struck me as clarity. I called Tracy the next day and Smoke Signal Media was born.
I've never thought about myself as an entrepreneur, but here I am, with one of my best friends, jumping into a scary unknown. We want to find people and tell their story, share their passion, and help them with their own plot twists. Vulnerability and authenticity have begun to shape the future of client-business relationships, which is why Tracy and I choose to share our own stories in hope that you, too, will share yours.
What will your story say about you?