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Writing to Learn

With a U journalism degree in tow, Tracy McMillan BA’89 left Salt Lake for a job at NBC Nightly News, followed by 15 years writing and producing TV news. She then transitioned to writing film, books, and television, including the hit show Mad Men. Most recently, you’ll catch her giving relationship advice to engaged couples as the host of the reality series Family or Fiancé. We caught up with McMillan to ask her about her trade.

You’ve gone from a child bounced around in the foster care system, to a college graduate, to a career in news, to a Hollywood writer and now TV host.  What has kept you motivated?

For a long time, I just wanted to get into the middle class! When you grow up with very little money and security, just feeling economically safe is a huge motivator. But by the time I was a few years into my TV news career, I’d started to think about my bigger career goals. Ultimately, I’ve always been interested in communicating—ideas, stories, inspiration. Our ability to communicate—to form narratives, to tell stories—is the essence of being human.

You’ve said you’d keep writing even if you won the lottery. Why do you love it so much?

Writing is learning. It’s a way of diving deep into the psyche to understand and make sense of the human condition. When you take events, ideas, and emotions and organize them into a story, you are literally structuring life. It’s like domesticating the chaos of being alive using symbols.

What tips do you have for aspiring writers?

Know what you are here to say. Have a larger narrative for your work. Hint: it’s going to be something you really need to work out within yourself. For me, it’s relationships. Beginning with my mother giving me up at age three months, and continuing through foster care and multiple marriages, it became clear that my journey is sort of  he extreme sports version of what we’re all trying to do: find secure attachment in this world. Everything I do in my career touches on this in some way.

How do people react when you tell them you graduated from the University of Utah?

Saying I went to the U of U never fails to start a conversation! People are interested in Utah; they don’t know much about it. I always start with my love for Salt Lake City. Then, I boast about how I got a great education with access to wonderful internships for a reasonable price in a safe city with a relatively low cost of living. I talk about the beauty and the nature and the people. And when I’m done with all that, I tell them about fry sauce!


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