Thrillist writer and Destination Imagination (DI) alumnus, Tanner Saunders, talks creative writing, improv and those crazy, viral recipe videos you see on Facebook.
Alumni Council (AC): How did you get involved with DI, and how long were you a participant?
Tanner Saunders (TS): I didn’t get involved until I was in high school, then participated all four years. My junior and senior years were the pinnacle. I did the Improv Challenge every year, and my junior year we made it to Global Finals. I think we placed fifth, and that was kind of the highlight of my DI career.
AC: What would you say your favorite memory from is from your time as a participant?
TS: Global Finals was the icing on the cake, but I was really lucky in that my memories involve being on my team. The team that I had, which was the same team every year, was the Picgagas, which sounds crazy but when we were coming up with our team name our thought process was, “let’s literally just combine the two most creative people we can think of” and so for some reason we landed on Lady Gaga and Picasso. The main thing was just that every day when I went to my practice with my team, I was with a group of people who I genuinely had so much fun with. I never felt there was never any question like “Is this too weird? Is this too crazy?” We just did crazy things and made it work.
AC: Give me your 5-minute elevator pitch for what you’re doing now.
TS: I am an editorial assistant at Thrillist in New York City. We are a lifestyle website that covers food and drink, travel, and city-specific content. My day-to-day is writing food and drink articles and working with those viral videos of travel destinations and food and those crazy “You won’t believe these 15 tacos are actually made from birthday cake ice cream!” videos you see on Facebook and Instagram. The coolest part of my job is that I can write about anything I want to. I just pitch it to my editors and try to get the green light from them. It’s great because, for a first-time job, I have a lot of support and people behind me who are pushing me and trying to help me grow.
This is my dream job. I worked incredibly hard to have the clips and background to get the job and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time when it became available. I’m doing everything I can to grow and hopefully move onto another level, such as an editor or full-time staff writer, where all I’m doing all day is writing. For my next project, I’m going to Kenya for a week to hang out with a guy who’s making a documentary and write about it as I go. It’s a huge responsibility and I’m very excited! I’m also incredibly nervous. It’s a big test, but it’s also cool that they’re letting me do because it’s really outside my job’s scope. So, for a week or so I’ll just be learning about cats in Africa.
AC: How did you get into lifestyle writing? You’ve done a lot of different types of editorial work, so what led to this type of writing?
TS: I’ve always kept a blog, just different forms of writing that I did. Since I was in middle school, I’ve been some form of writer. I think that’s another reason I liked the Improv Challenge so much — we were doing creative writing at the time. I got my Bachelor’s Degree in commercial songwriting. I went through this phase where I thought I wanted to be a songwriter, which is something I do in my spare time and I love it. But I realized I like writing, in general, more than just songwriting. I started freelance writing when I was in college and started making a little money doing a lot of hyper-specific content about Texas. I did funny headlines like “You’re Not a Real Texan Unless You Do These 14 Things,” all that viral, social media sort of content you see. And then I decided to pursue it full time and I found out about a Master’s program at NYU. They have a summer program where you can test the waters, and I did that last summer. While there, I made a magazine with a few other students and it went so well we won a contest. That opened a lot of doors for me, and I decided to stay in New York. Then I got my job at Thrillist.
AC: What makes you so passionate about work? What motivates you every day and what challenges you to keep growing?
TS: Every day is different. I am constantly learning because I’ll get assigned to write a story about something that I know nothing about. They might ask me to review some sort of ramen and I don’t know anything about Japanese food, so I’ll spend a whole day just learning about it, then thinking about what is cool about it and then figuring out how to share that with other people. My motto has always been “relentlessly curious” because I never want to stop learning.
AC: How would you say that DI has influenced what you’re doing now?
TS: Out of everything I did in high school, being part of DI was an opportunity for me to completely be myself, to take all the risks that I wanted and have no sort of question about what the payoff was or if it was worth it. And that’s the point of DI, right? Put yourself out there and just do it. To achieve your goals, you must be authentic, willing to take risks and willing to make yourself uncomfortable. This was especially apparent in the Improv Challenge, where one year we pretended to be pirates who were pacifists. You’re with a group of people who are all just as willing to be real and be crazy as you. That’s what I try to do here in New York. I try to push everything to the limit to see where it gets me. So far, it’s working.
AC: Why would you say that DI is important, both for kids thinking about signing up and for kids currently participating?
TS: The thing about DI that is extra special is that it’s the culmination of all the things you want out of an organization. You learn teamwork, you must do research, you must be willing to put the work in and do some book-y stuff, but if you’re creative in any way—a singer, a dancer, like to draw, use your hands—there’s an opportunity for you to do that. For me, I think learning how to think was one of the more valuable lessons. I can’t think of many other things I did in school where I was forced to learn how to use my brain and how to work with other people. It’s so much like the real world, more than any other thing I did in school, and you’re having an unbelievable amount of fun. I would still do it today if I could. My job in a lot of ways is kind of like it. We’re just problem solving, which is such a tangible and valuable skill.