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Gretchen Vogt

During the second semester of my senior year of college, I woke up at 6am to the smell of coffee freshly brewed in my 4-cup, one-button Mr. Coffee machine plugged into a mechanical outlet timer, pulled out my computer, and wrote in bed for an hour. Then I got up, went to my mechanical engineering classes, and worked in a lab before settling in to solve problem-sets until the wee hours of the morning. I finished the first draft of a 60,000 word novel just three weeks before I graduated from Northwestern with double majors in mechanical engineering and creative nonfiction.

Looking back, this combination of majors was not as unpredictable as it seems at first glance. I grew up competing in chess tournaments, but between games I was reading books ranging from The Magic Treehouse in elementary school to The Grapes of Wrath in middle school. Sometimes I even snuck a book into the tournament room to read in between turns. Still, I never considered my reading or, later, my writing awards anything beyond a hobby. That is, until my sophomore year of college when I took a poetry class to fulfill my humanities requirement. During that poetry class, I realized I didn’t have to limit myself to the stereotype that “engineers can’t write.”

I was thrilled to be accepted to the competitive creative writing sequence in 2018. I spent my senior year writing and revising personal essays while juggling engineering homework, my work in the lab, and my novel. When I graduated in 2019, the question I got most from friends, family, and well-meaning professors was, “Those majors are so different. How did you come up with that?”

What I liked to tell them was that stories are a type of machine: machines and stories are made up of distinct components that work in harmony to achieve a goal greater than the sum of the parts. Engineers and writers are not so different either— they must be detail-oriented while not losing sight of the bigger picture. And of course, engineers and writers must be both creative and analytical, both independent and collaborative, both inventor and artist.

I went on to get a Master’s degree in Engineering Design & Innovation at Northwestern where I honed my skills in interactive design, UI/UX, and storytelling through user interviews, journey maps, and personas. In my experience, creative writing and engineering are not such star-crossed lovers as the stereotypes about writers and engineers would have you believe. For me, it’s a match made in heaven.