Gathering the Pieces

September 21, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Melanie Spencer

For most of my life, I’ve written from two different worlds—one technical and public, the other personal and private.

In science and business, my writing has a clear purpose and known audience. It is bounded by subject matter and structure. Evidence and facts must be produced and gathered. The writing must convey the right information in the right way—accurate, novel, interesting. It must be persuasive enough to convince its audience to make a decision or take an action or pursue a line of inquiry or simply to learn. That is its function. Without function, it is unnecessary.

For many, this kind of systematized writing may seem dry and uninspiring. I would argue that it is an infinitely creative endeavor. Within its rigid confines lies an intellectual puzzle. How does one create a factual story line that is both objectively defensible and interesting? A manuscript that will exceed the expectations of journal editors and survive the peer-review process? A technical manual that thoroughly instructs and will still be read? A presentation that is compelling without venturing into hyperbole?

For me, these challenges have been addictive. They allowed me to flex my creative muscles.

Without going too deep.

Without revealing too much.

Without taking an emotional risk.

Without confronting the things I’d rather leave buried.

Tucked away in drawers,

in obscurely named folders that follow me from one laptop to the next,

in journals, never finished,

on slips of paper stuffed

in pockets of calendars or lab notebooks or random envelopes.

Only written when I was brave enough (rarely) or distraught enough (mostly) to do nothing else.

Even then, I could barely write to the edge of what lies within, uncertain that the limits of my strength were enough to keep it contained, terrified that I might become someone else, someone that my family, that I, no longer recognized.

Except I was already a person they did not fully know, who I did not fully know.

On occasion, I would venture into the paper labyrinth to read whatever bit happened to be at hand, to remind myself how much I had once loved to write from the heart, not just from the mind. Sometimes, I found something beautiful, something forgotten, a glimpse inside my own soul.

Then I’d notice the amateurish writing, the overwrought phrasing. I’d laugh at my momentary delusion, sweep the crumbs away and hurry back to my concrete fortress of facts and numbers and logical, cerebral distraction. Unable or unwilling to approach vulnerability.

The tragic circumstances surrounding my cousin’s sudden death finally broke me, into pieces that were scattered far and wide, to be gathered one by one, examined to find layers and curves and cracks, that defined how they matched and fit. I could no longer deny the reality of who I was, could no longer write fragments that revealed too little when I knew too much.

I began to write in earnest, to catalog what was revealed. The pieces became warp and weft, then whole cloth made from what was old and discarded. I discovered myself within the fabric’s incandescent colors, its dingy, frayed threads, its surprising mix of textures. Writing forced me to face my self-deception. In the pandemic suspension of time and normalcy, I wrote the intersection of my pain with pain I saw all around me. I watched seasons march onward. Flowers bloomed. Tides washed the river higher and lower. I found beauty in the mundane and the tragic. Simple, everyday observation became revelation.

My writing has moved beyond function, has become a joyful, limitless, unsettling thing, freeing me from boundaries that defined who I was, to become the person, the writer I have always been.


Melanie Spencer is a scientist, writer and educator who lives in North Carolina and Philadelphia.  She holds a PhD in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology and a Masters in Business Administration.  Her scholarly writing appears in refereed journals and in Harvard Business School’s case study collection. Her current work includes scientific collaborations with Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist as Professor Emeritus and her first creative non-fiction book, written from the heart. Find her on Twitter @MelanieDSpencer

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