What’s Writing to You? The Role of Writing in Living

Kendyl Harmeling, Assistant Director For Graduate Student Writing

As Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing here at the University of Louisville Writing Center, I work at both the Belknap and Health Sciences campuses and frequently have conversations about writing with undergrads, grad students, faculty, and staff alike. In these interdisciplinary discussions, I often find myself told: “Well, we just don’t do a lot of writing in my field.” For a while, my response to this idea was to shrug and accept that, sure, maybe some fields are less writing-intensive than others. My response was not ideal for a number of reasons, but mainly because I was regularly shrugging off an opportunity to question the function of writing, its definitions, and how it changes across communities. Now in my response to this situation I ask: so, what is writing to you?

This languaging shift occurred for me when I was talking with a graduate student in the Dental program earlier this year, who was narrating their program path to me. They kept referring to their probable lack of Writing Center use because there was just no writing in their graduate program; no writing in a program means, of course, no need to visit the University Writing Center. But I was struck – how does a terminal degree program require no writing for their graduate students? I thought there must be something like writing going on there. To fill in the blanks, I began to think about the professional life of a practicing dentist and a flurry of questions came to me: Do dentists write? What do dentists write? What is writing to a dentist? And why do dental graduate students believe they don’t (or won’t) do it? Where’s the disconnect and what caused it?

I happen to know a handful of dentists and can confidently say that dentists write. Dentists are writers. Writing is a tool that dentists use, just like a tooth scraper or floss. My dentist writes me a prescription when necessary. He writes a regular newsletter for all his patients, outlining changes to insurance policies or scheduling systems. He publishes peer-reviewed articles in the major journals of his field on new technologies and techniques. He also writes me (and all his patients) holiday cards. Isn’t this all writing? What is writing if it’s not what my dentist does? What my dentist writes certainly looks different from what I write as a graduate student in the humanities and as a writing teacher, but the differences in the qualities and functions of our writing do not negate either of our claims to being a writer.  Our shared claims to being someone who does writing, for whom writing is a tool of our professions. The face of the writing might change—what its forms, functions, and goals are—but what remains is that we are writers writing.

If you read our Program Assistant Maddy’s blogpost from last week, you’ll learn that if you come to the UofL Writing Center, we’ll call you a “writer.” She does a lovely job writing about why we use this term, and the emotional state that you might find yourself in upon being given a title (like “writer”) that you might not feel comfortable claiming. This is the same response, to me, as when people tell me they don’t do a lot of writing in their field – there is a disconnect between what the general idea of “writing” is and the thing which people do, every day, in their professions and lives. I see this across stations and disciplines, from faculty and staff to graduate students to undergrad students in my English 101 classes. There is trepidation in claiming writing as a tool beyond the humanities, but the reality is quite different. You are a writer, and you do writing. You write, your field writes, and I’ll prove it.

Like my dentist who writes, although who might not claim the title “writer” over the title “dental professional,” we are all writing in our fields and in our lives. From my experience, this disconnect between identifying and claiming writing as a tool of our professions – of our identities in many ways – might come from the lofty myth of writing. This idea that writing must have its head in the clouds with its feet off the ground – that it must loft our better angels of ideas high into the sky where only theorists and artists can find it – is misplaced and misguided. Writing is a tool, and sometimes it can be lofty and heavy-hitting, but sometimes it’s just a vehicle for communication. When I write poetry, I feel like a “writer,” but, when I write text messages, or social media posts, or when I write an email to my boss – I am also a writer in these moments, a writer doing writing. And so are you.

A lawyer will tell you that writing is an essential tool in their profession, likewise a teacher or a professional writer. But so will hospital workers and medical professionals. Nurses doing rounds on call have to write PICO reports of their patients; similarly, they write prescriptions, emails to insurance companies or the billing department, and so many other micro-genres that populate the communicative avenues of their disciplines. A hospital administrator needs to write board reports, grant proposals, budgets, etc. A custodial-professional needs to write order lists and take inventory. An engineer needs to write grant proposals, blueprints, and proofs. A software designer writes code. A postal worker writes “Sorry I missed you” stickers when trying to deliver packages when you’re not home. And these are only examples of mono-modal genres.

None of these genres are any more “writing” than another. Their variance is part of what makes writing such an incredible, essential tool. Lofty or not, writing is about communication – and communication is a fundamental human experience. So, come by the University Writing Center to have a fundamentally human experience, to talk through what writing means to you, what it looks like, and what it does. More so, come by to talk about how the UWC can help you build a relationship with your and your field’s writing. Challenge yourself to question and analyze the role writing plays in your profession or program. Maybe, even, write about it.

Some reflective questions to begin analyzing your relationship with writing in your professional and personal life:

  1. What do you imagine the definition of “writing” is – what elements of a text must be present for it to be considered “writing”?
    1. Where and when did you learn this?
    1. What is the relationship between when/how this idea of “writing” formed for you and how it frames your relationship to writing today? In other words, how were you socialized into this view of “writing” and how has that socialization impacted how you view “writing” today?
  2. What genres (categories) of “writing” do you interact with daily – if we can accept that “writing” can mean any written (alphabetic or otherwise) communication?
  3. How is writing integrated into the systems you work within? How does it affect operations and functions of your workplace/space? What about in your personal life?
  4. Would you call yourself a writer – considering your creation of text with these genres and conventions? Why or why not?
    1. How many times do you have to write, and in how many ways, before you can call yourself a writer?

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