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100% life: carolyn ureña

05/28/12 , ,

Every writer needs a reader.

Over the years this simple phrase has become one of my mantras, reminding me who I am and who I want to be.

When I was growing up in Washington Heights, a primarily Dominican neighborhood in Manhattan, I never dreamed I would go to Princeton, let alone graduate school. In fact, I didn’t even know what Princeton was until I was in ninth or tenth grade. All I knew was that I loved to write and that it was something I felt I was good at.

Early on being “good at” something seemed to be the end goal, and like other bookish kids, I learned how to compose for my teachers. One might be a stickler for grammar; another, a fan of flowery language. So I did what I thought would make them happy – I wrote as if they were the only person who would ever read my work.

At some point, though, I realized that I had ideas I wanted to share, words that welled up inside me and were eager to bubble up to the surface. I began to write for myself, whether in private journals, class assignments, or long emails to friends. Once I began to see myself as a writer, an experimenter, as just a girl playing in a sandbox, a whole new world of thought opened up for me. This is the kind of writing I both do and teach.

I cultivated my passion for helping others uncover the power of their own voices as an undergraduate writing tutor at Princeton’s Writing Center, where I first encountered “Every writer needs a reader” as the group’s motto. In the context of working with students, it served to let them know that there I was, eager to read whatever they brought in to work on regardless of where they were in the writing process. Later, as a graduate student and instructor of Academic Writing at the University of Maryland, I made a conscious effort to show my students that I was not just a reader (as I thought my teachers were) but a writer, too. It was no small coincidence that I frequently found myself grading their papers even as I was working on my own. Although a majority of them were pre-med science majors who claimed “writing is not my thing,” I encouraged them to remember all of the texting, emailing, and “To Do” list scribbling they had done. They, too, were writers. And so are you.

As a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at Rutgers, I’m working to see myself as the shape-shifter I really am, to make the movement from reader to writer and back again as natural as breathing. Writing, like so many other endeavors, is really about establishing a relationship with another, the best of which are constantly changing and transforming. In my current research, I’m interested in narratives of illness, in the ways that patients write about their experiences with disease and how the doctors who treat them understand their roles in the doctor-patient relationship. As a reader of these intimate texts, I work to remain attuned to the difficulties of expressing pain and suffering, and to the choices these storytellers make in sharing themselves with their audience. As a writer, I try to imagine a generous reader of my own, one who is waiting for me on the other side of the page or screen, eager to enter a conversation that has no preconceived outcome.

Every writer needs a reader. Thank you for being mine.

Carolyn Ureña is a writer and a reader. Her current project explores how the Web has changed the way patients and doctors are becoming storytellers. When she isn’t reading, writing, or watching movies, you’ll find her in the kitchen cooking and baking to stay sane.

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