This month, Princeton Writes announced an essay contest designed to encourage members of Princeton’s staff to exercise their gifts as writers and to recognize those who express themselves in a particularly clear, creative, and compelling way. Some may hesitate to take advantage of this opportunity on the grounds that they are not “writers,” reserving this title for novelists and journalists or other professional wordsmiths. But as Kathy Taylor, a member of the selection committee that will award the Princeton Writes Prize, points out in this guest post, anyone who conscientiously embraces the challenge of converting thoughts to prose is, in fact, a writer, with something to contribute to the great edifice of words in which we live.
When I am a famous writer, the New York Times interviewer will ask, “When did you know you were going to be a writer?” And I will respond, “Oh, when I was a little girl! I used to go up into our attic and write on an old table next to one of the dormer windows. I’d write poems, short stories, and the first chapters of novels that featured a teenager who had adventures near her home on the coast of Maine (never having seen the coast of Maine). I made up little plays for the neighborhood. In junior high, I was the Features Editor for the student paper (in Hollidaysburg, PA, pop. 5,000).”
Well, here’s what happened after junior high . . .
When I got to high school, I tried out for the student paper – and didn’t get picked. When I was in college, I entered a writing contest to win a chance to be an editorial summer intern at Mademoiselle magazine – and, along with several thousand other college girls, didn’t get picked. Later, when I was in graduate school, there were a number of other instances when my writing “didn’t get picked.”
I was not going to be a famous writer after all. Instead, this is what I did:
- For a decade, I was in commercial banking, and there I had to write reports and memos, financial analyses, letters and proposals, and sometimes I was asked to help others do the same.
- For another decade or so, I was a high school teacher, and there I had to write reports and memos, classroom analyses, letters and proposals, and every day I was expected to teach others how to write reports.
- For the last 15 years, I have been in a University administrative office, and there I have had to write reports and memos, project analyses, letters and proposals, alumni profiles, and from time to time, I have been asked to help others do the same.
Though these three are not at all famous careers, I found that readers understand – and sometimes even enjoy – what I write. And recently a colleague announced to me, “Kathy, you are a writer.”
So, I may not be a “famous” writer, but I am a writer. I think about my word choice, I think about my audience, and I think about how to make my message clear, whatever my message may be.
You may be a lab assistant, a nurse at McCosh Infirmary, an OIT Help Desk administrator, a department manager, or a facilities supervisor. You may produce one report a year or a monthly analysis. Maybe email is your one and only medium. But if you write for your job at Princeton, you are a writer – maybe not a famous writer, but a writer nonetheless.
Kathy Taylor ’74 is Director of Alumni Affairs and Communications in the Office of Alumni Affairs and has been a member of Princeton’s staff since 1999.