July 26 AMICUS SCRIPTOR column:
In the past few months, I’ve done some bookstore readings for my new novel, Warming Up, and at a couple of them, there have been people there I didn’t know! Not friends. Not friends of friends. Not fellow alumni. Generic members of the public.
Why? Why were they there?
In Milwaukee, they may have been coming in from the rain, but otherwise, it occurred to me that they were there not because they’d heard of me—certainly they hadn’t—but because they were readers, and most likely writers. They’d seen that the bookstore was hosting a reading, and writers go to readings. Wanna-be writers do writerly things, just as wanna-be lawyers do lawyerly things—moot courts and journals, clinics and Rule 7-11 appearances.
There are certain things you do in life because your role demands or encourages it: you join the PTA, attend Little Leagues games and swim meets, sign up for pro-bono legal work, work on the condo social committee, serve on a local bar committee. It occurred to me, looking out my “public” audience—all twenty-two of them!—that lawyers who want to be writers need to do writerly things. Just as law school, court rules, and legal media inculcate the legal profession’s values, certain writing activities inculcate writerly values.
I should probably identify what I mean by writerly values. Of course I mean appreciation for a good story, well told, and a fine sentence, tightly crafted, but also, I think, a certain consciousness or awareness—an ability to be awake (in the spiritual sense) or alert (in a more secular vein) to the telling detail, the hidden emotion, the possibility of the as-yet unimagined, the power of raw honesty. Writers need to be around people who cannot lie, even in their fiction. (Lawyers who aspire to be writers especially need to be around people who cannot rationalize or mitigate or argue in the alternative.) Lawyers who avoid surprise at trial need to be around people who specialize in surprising others and are themselves willing to be surprised.
So what are writerly things to do? I’ll skip the obvious “read,” because that is an activity usually done in isolation. I’m suggesting things that writers do together to feed each other’s creativity.
Join. Just as you probably joined a bar association or two, you should join a writer’s network or workshop or association. A great place to start—and I’ve just discovered them myself—might be the Chicago Writers Association, www.chicagowrites.org, which has a great list of resources. They also provide a list of workshops and special interest groups, by genre and location.
Learn. Even though you won’t get CLE, it’s very helpful to take classes in the craft of writing. Like practicing scales on the piano, most beginning writers need to practice point of view, detail, dialogue, scene, half-scene, metaphor, etc. You’ll learn, for instance, how writers read and how to be your own best critic.
Explore. Explore arts and cultural events outside of your discipline or your usual tastes. If you love ballet, attend a folk dance concert; if you’re a symphony buff, try jazz or rap. Go to art galleries, ethnic museums, innovative theatre. Do things you wouldn’t normally do. Zipline, parasail, take a hot air balloon ride. See the world differently. Feed your imagination with new perspectives and experiences. Make a bucket list and cross a couple things off it.
Write. Writing alone can be lonely, but, on the other hand, it can be cone anywhere, even in the midst of a huge crowd. If loneliness is an issue for you, you might make a habit of going to places where lots of people are writing: again, you’ll find a list of cafes and clubs and other writer-friendly places at www.chicagowrites.org. There are also places like the Story Studio which provide creative space. Or you can form a group that gets together at the same time each week and each person simply works or writes. I have two friends, for instance, who join me on Friday mornings at my condo—both have retired and coming to my place is kind of like going to the office they no longer have.
Share. I’ve written about regular workshops before, and still think it’s one of the most useful things you can do to convince yourself you’re a writer. On the legal side of your life, you probably share your expertise, writing articles or serving on a bar association committee or mentoring younger attorneys—on the writing side, even though you may be a beginner, you have something to share, and you should.
Submit. Lawyers give advice to clients, put on cases, argue appeals, negotiate deals. It’s what they do. As I’ve written before, getting published is integral to becoming an author. And getting published involves submitting your work to an agent or a contest or a publication. Nothing will make you feel more like a writer than collecting a wall full of rejections! Lawyers don’t win every trial. Writers don’t publish every story. Submitting is the writing equivalent of suiting up and showing up. It’s declaring yourself as a writer. It’s the penultimate writerly activity.