Bar News - August 11, 2006
The Lawyer-Writer: Making Your Dream a Reality
By: Marilyn McNamara
Recently an educator told me that people are either right-brained or left, but rarely both. I refrained from responding. I was in my right brain at the moment (or left, I never remember which side controls what) and therefore chose the wisdom of silence over the folly of pointless argument.
Many lawyers I know—in fact, probably most—have the capacity to be both logical and intuitive, rational and emotional. They can also be highly creative even as they operate successfully in the structured, rule-based world of law and legal thinking. Indeed, my personal theory of language development is that we sang first, then we spoke, then we evolved a certain group of humans who said, “Wait a minute, let’s get that in writing.” You know who you are.
If you put ten lawyers in a room with sufficient food, water and oxygen (and access to a bathroom and a telephone, of course), together with a one-page paragraph, plenty of paper and writing implements, you could then leave the premises, have dinner, go to a movie, visit a bar and finally return to find them still arguing about the use of the word “and” in the third line down. It’s what we do.
Lawyers write. We also read, and speak (okay, argue) and counsel clients and perform all sorts of other tasks, but fundamentally the profession is full of individuals who write something every day. And for many of us, that something includes non-work-related writing—letters to the editor, stories, poems, and—yes—half-written full-length works of drama, fiction or non-fiction that are hidden in a file marked “personal.”
If prodded, most lawyers will admit that they have an idea for a manuscript, but fewer will admit to the 16-page start that’s languishing in a password-protected file waiting for the right time to blossom into that blockbuster novel, screenplay or scholarly work it’s so clearly meant to be. The work remains personal, private and undisclosed even to friends and family.
We may be smart and creative but it’s also true that many lawyers are actually very shy, particularly when they venture out past the rules of law and into unknown territory. Our reticence is also protective—who wants to talk about a dream that may never become reality? How many of us are willing to appear amateurish or unschooled in non-legal writing? And if we finish the work and show it around, could we stand the public exposure of our private thoughts?
I don’t listen to the radio when I drive. I either think about work things, or home things, or why the man in the old Ford is driving so fast. Then off I go into right-brain heaven. Is he fleeing the scene of a crime? Is he driving to the hospital to hear the last words of his dying Uncle Jack who may finally reveal the family secret? Maybe his wife is having a baby, or his daughter is leaving to join the circus and he has to get home to stop her. And, then, there’s that couple ahead who appear to be shouting….
A few years ago I started writing down (password protected, I might add) some of the story lines that popped into my head. Then I started working on actual stories. It was fun and kept me out of the private lives of the innocent folks who passed me on the highway. I still do it, though I’ve become more focused on developing a finished product. That focus came about as a result of pure serendipity.
I found a brochure in my junk mail from an organization called SEAK, Inc. They were offering a Cape Cod weekend with non-fiction and fiction workshops specifically targeted to lawyers. I looked, lingered on the idea for a moment, and threw the brochure away. Later in the week I emptied the trash and there it was, floating up through the rest of the paper, not even sullied by old lunch napkins. I picked it out, set it back on my desk and ignored if for weeks. Now and again the bright blue letters would catch my eye, and I’d pick it up, read it through and put it back on the pile. I found myself doing that more and more often as the deadline drew near. At first I couldn’t justify the time or the expense of such self-indulgence, but then I realized that the workshops would be useful for the grant-writing and reporting I do in my work—not because that’s fiction, mind you. I decided to take the leap. I checked with my husband, looked at my calendar and pulled out my credit card.
Before I went, I completed the writing assignment. I was reluctant to send it in. This was the first time since college that I was about to submit a creative piece to a critical reader and I was shy—that’s right, shy. I almost didn’t do it, but on the day of the deadline I popped it into the mail. When the envelope came back with the promised comments, I almost didn’t open it. When I did, I was relieved to find that the comments were positive and instructive and that they hadn’t sent my deposit back with a nasty note telling me to take up knitting.
I went off to the Cape very early one morning in October and found over 200 lawyers from all over the country, many as eager, anxious and newly shy as I was, waiting to enter the first seminar room. I took a seat near the front, but not too close.
The instructors were sharp, incisive and professional. The workshop exercises were instructive and afforded an opportunity to read short lines in front of the entire group if one were so inclined. At first I held back, but when I heard the first three or four offerings, the old competitive edge kicked in and I joined the line to the microphone. It was incredibly freeing to read my hastily scribbled works out loud in front of all those people—the first time I’d ever shared a single creative word out loud, ever; or at least since grade school. It helped that the feedback was positive and useful.
I learned that I was not alone. As is always true of conferences, networking and talking with peers was the most valuable part of the experience. I met lawyers who love their work and see writing as an opportunity for enrichment. I met others who just want to write their great novels and get out of the practice entirely and still others who have one single idea that has grabbed them and won’t let go until they make a stab at writing it down.
I heard submissions that were superb and others that were, well, not so good. I met people from all over the country, from all legal disciplines, from all races, ages and possibly more than the two customary genders. We talked about writing, work and family. Oh, and the Red Sox. It was the big year.
I did get some very useful information about professional writing that I was able to use immediately in my work. The conference materials were excellent. I also picked up concrete information about agents and publishing; although that wasn’t really the focus of my interest (first you have to finish something). One interesting fact: apparently agents and publishers like dealing with most lawyers as clients. We read and follow the rules and we’re more or less pre-screened for general intellect and emotional stability. We were told that lawyers have a higher rate of acceptance than the run-of-the-mill author. We were encouraged to read in the genre of our interest, and to write for submission.
I’m going back this year.
Marilyn McNamara is the director of the Legal Advice and Referral Center. She has been a member of the NH Bar since 1977.