W is for the Writing Center… and finding my special purpose. (Wink.)

I started working in the Michigan Tech Writing Center when I was a sophomore in college. I loved it there SO much– more than being an RA, more than rowing crew, more even than my actual major. I only worked 8 – 12 hours per week, depending on the semester, but those 8 – 12 hours were much more formative for me than any 15 – 20 credit course load I ever had.

The chem sci building-- where I basically lived for four years.
The chem sci building– where I basically lived for four years.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that I learned chemistry and physics and math (except differential equations– what a waste! I couldn’t even get a date out of that class, though I tried…) and such. It’s probably even good that I learned some things about myself by being an RA (which super sucked, but led to meeting my husband, so…) and rowing crew (which made my back, arms, and legs crazy strong for the year I did it, but just ended up being too much– let’s be honest here, I’m no athlete). Those are the things that made me look different from the outside, paid for my room and board, and filled in the bubbles on the GRE, but I’ve got to tell you, they are not the biggest things. The most influential things.

The most influential thing was absolutely, hands down, 100% for definitely sure the Writing Center.

The Writing Center. At an engineering university? That caters almost entirely to the most technically-minded of the nerds? In the middle of no where? I mean… the edge of no where?

Yes. The Writing Center. At Michigan Tech. Which is all those things, but such a hidden gem. (I should really recruit for the Huskies, I love that place so much.)


I’ve talked a little bit before about my boss in the Writing Center, Sylvia Matthews, and how absolutely amazing she was (is, to be sure). And I really think that it was she, Jill Arola, and Nancy Grimm and their ridiculously insightful ways of thinking, living, and educating that made it the special place that it was.

You see, in the Writing Center, it wasn’t so much about the grammar and the punctuation and the sentence structure and all the other technical aspects of writing that tend to give the vast majority of people either a headache or a panic attack. It was about understanding and being understood. About using words to do that. And the things I learned. Oy.

As part of working at the Writing Center, all of the coaches had to take a small, one credit course in which we discussed pedagogy and techniques and experiences and the like. At the end of every semester of “work,” we all wrote reflections about our experiences and what we had learned. I saved a couple of them. Not sure how exactly… they’ve definitely survived several major paper purges since I graduated in 2005, but listen to this one:

I can’t help but feel like this shows the the Writing Center is the place where I am supposed to be and the work I’m doing is important.

That was in 2004!

Pablo Picasso once said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”

Words, communicating with them… I think that’s my gift.

It’s not what I expected my gift to be. Nor is it what I thought it was or what I necessarily would have hoped for, but here we are. I think I finally found it.

It’s not like I just woke up one day in the recent past and liked writing or thought I was good at it.


My “gift” found me a long, long time ago. The Young Authors thing-a-ma-jig at Lincoln (who remembers that big book? how good it felt to have your story “published”?) was always awesome for me in elementary school. I loved the Independent Study in English I did with my cross country coach, Mr. Moran, my sophomore year in high school… and even now I’m still proud of the essay I vaguely remember writing about Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles… no idea what it was about, but guys, it was good.

Later on, in college, I got this rave review on a biochemistry report:

An absolute pleasure to read, etc... yay yay yay! A+!
An absolute pleasure to read, etc… yay yay yay! A+!

Yep, kept that too. It made me feel awesome!

And I loved the writing center so so so much.

Yet, my brain, my logic, my ACT results and aptitude tests and interests had me convinced that it was science science science all the way. Science would lead me to success. I would cure something, help someone, do sciencey things and make the world a better place by being noticed, by making a big impact.

A little piece of me must have known that wasn’t true. Because if it were, I’d be a chemist somewhere… working at 3M, inventing polymers and interpreting spectra and such, because I could have done that after college. But it didn’t seem right. Something wasn’t fitting and I wasn’t happy. So I went to grad school… where I wasn’t happy… and tried to go to med school… but I realized that was a very expensive path to continued unhappiness… so I stuck it in grad school… and came to the end… and still wasn’t very happy with my options.

It took all that time for me to admit to myself that I didn’t want to be a bench scientist. I didn’t want to run a lab. I didn’t want to come up with new ideas and new ways to test them.

So what did I like?

Talking about it. Always. Telling other people about science, about medicine, about dinosaurs, about whatever.

Thankfully, the universe, powers that be, whatever, know better than I do… and ultimately I ended up where I am now, as a scientific research writer at a big clinic. Back in what is, essentially, a post-collegiate writing center! I’m finally in a place where I use my gift on the regular.

Well, half of it anyway.

The other half was definitely this blog.

An illustrative example for you…

At work, I say “epistaxis as a result of digital trauma…”

On the Internet, I say “nosebleed because you dug too deep. Get your fingers out of there. Geez.”

A different way of saying exactly the same thing. One gets published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings (hopefully) and the other makes someone laugh, but get it while they’re laughing.

And that’s the other half.

The things that makes me the happiest about writing now, at work and on the internet… and the thing that made me the happiest then, in the Writing Center… was the impact it had on people. And on me. Equal and opposite forces. An action and a reaction. Both things leaving the encounter changed.

At work, I help people make their science understandable and accessible. I cannot tell you how rewarding it is to see something in print, to get a funding notice for a grant… but most of all, to have an author I’ve previously worked with come back an improved writer. That’s the best best. (I’m talking to you, Dr. Kanth!) I learn about crazy things like deformed pancreases and what a vitamin D deficiency really does to your body (it’s not just rickets, yo)… I take that away, and someone takes something completely different away from me. A better technique for incorporating literature into a Discussion section, a modified sentence structure, a new way to format a table. Some little piece of communication.

It always happened that way at the Writing Center too. There was this kid one time, a freshman that I coached, and a professor made him cry in front of his entire class during the first week of school when he pronounced a word incorrectly. My heart broke for him. Absolutely broke. There was little I could actually do besides listen and encourage him and help him to communicate better. And seriously, by the end of the semester, he was volunteering to speak in front of the class. I’m not trying to say that was necessarily because of me, but I do know that he and I were both changed.

Here’s what I said about it on December 7, 2004 (Writing Center reflection style, again)–

I have been continually impressed with Jason this semester. He has determination and work ethic like no one I have ever met. I can say with confidence that having been faced with the same situation, I would have become very apathetic toward my work, sure that I could do nothing to please the teacher. I would have been very angry, but Jason never was. As much as I feel like I helped him to come out of his shell, he showed me the way that a person can handle difficulties gracefully. Through all of these difficulties, I am really glad that I got to be Jason’s coach.

And I think that maybe, just maybe, that’s what Picasso meant. When you give your gift away, this intangible gift that is the purpose of your life, you don’t lose anything. The little space you opened up is filled with something even better, something different and new and exciting. A new facet on your perspective. And the person who took that little piece of your gift away? They grow it– they grow it into something completely new, and different, and exciting inside themselves. Like planting a seed, or rooting a plant cutting.

At least, that’s what Picasso said means to me.

Communicating with words, erudite and crass, is my mission and my jam, my calling and my thang. I can do it for science, I can do it for life, I can do it for the twisted workings of my brain, and I can do it for others.

For others though, that’s my favorite part. I can brag about my sister-in-law if she’s having trouble doing herself (she’s always have trouble doing it herself– Sister Doctor just got the biggest honor you can get in all of medical school and tells people it’s “just” an organization thing. Sigh.). I can proofread and format a resume for someone who has lost a job. I can fix up a poster when someone panics a week before a conference. These are the things I can do. The gifts that I can share. Always something in return, of course, even if it’s just the satisfaction of having been able to do something when I would otherwise be helpless. And I like that so much.

The Writing Center helped me to find my special purpose… not the same special purpose that Steve Martin came across a little prematurely in The Jerk (Trista, let’s watch that this weekend! trip to Family Video!), but a special purpose in the sense that his mom really meant it. I couldn’t have done what I do now if I hadn’t pursued all of the sciences, so I’m glad that I did the chemistry degree and the grad school with all the STDs and the like, but at the time, science was always the goal. Not so, it turns out! The Writing Center was to be the place I circled back to, in another form, yes, but the same idea. I work with authors with all ranges of education levels, backgrounds, accents, talent and skill levels on far more topics than I could ever possibly fully understand, but regardless of all that– I help people get their words out, to be heard, to share, and in return, I am constantly changed.

It’s funny that way back in 2004, I worked so hard with other Writing Center coaches to present on what we called “The Ripple Effect” at a writing center conference… but only as an abstract and beautiful thing that I mostly hoped would happen. Good news: it did. It does. Always.

Here we are at that sweet writing center conference-- Sylvia right in the middle :)
Here we are at that sweet writing center conference– Sylvia right in the middle 🙂

Well… this is awkward. I go searching to find a link to take you to the Writing Center website and find out it’s now called the Michigan Tech Multiliteracies Center. Makes sense. Still in Walker 107. A rose by any other name, I guess! More importantly, M for Multiliteracies is basically just an upside-down W for Writing… so… we’re good.

Oh wait... apparently I did know. I took this picture when I was there for Winter Carnival in 2012. Well then...
Oh wait… apparently I did know. I took this picture when I was there for Winter Carnival in 2012. Well then…

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