November 15, 2011

“We teach life, and life isn’t easy”

For my day job, I interviewed a very nice gentlemen yesterday who is a lawyer who oversees law clinics here at the University of Wyoming. Law clinics are where law students take pro bono cases and actually enter the courtroom with an experienced lawyer to assist. The director’s outlook on life is such a great balance between idealism and practicality, and he loves what he does.

(I love talking to people about what they are passionate about. It’s one of my great pleasures.)

It struck me throughout our conversations how similar being a writer and being a lawyer are in so many ways. Here are some of them.

The original meaning of freelance was, of course, a knight put his “free lance” in service to a king. He represented that king and kingdom on the field of battle, and he put his skills and his life on the line to defend that king. Another word for that is mercenary, but it’s two sides of the same coin. A freelance writer is the same. She puts her skills and her work life on the line to represent someone to the world. And a lawyer is the same thing. They put their professional reputation and skills to the test in ways that have huge impacts on the lives of those involved. Idealistically, each of these is a person giving their lives for another. Less idealistically, this is someone making a buck off someone else in their time of need.

Another way that a writer and a lawyer are similar is that there are academic and practical branches of the discipline. These overlap, but one does not prepare you for the other. In the case of being a lawyer, the director said that three years in a classroom does not prepare you to be a lawyer. Only being a lawyer can prepare you. In that way, it should be a trade school, not an academic discipline. That’s why these law clinics are so important. In writing, there are academics who study it, and then there’s rhet/comp or creative writing that practices it. Sure, academics write as well, and I think being in academia is infinitely fascinating, but it holds the same relation to practicing outside the institution as academics does to practicing law. A technical or creative writer can’t enter into a in-depth theoretical discussion with an academic, any more than an academic can write a technical report or short story (unless the person is both). This split is the source of much conflict in English departments.

I asked the director what students were not prepared for when they came in. He said that they were not aware of the shear amount of hard work involved. Most of the time, it’s not at all glamorous. Same for writing. The years of apprenticeship (10,000 hours) and the piles and piles of rejection. He also said that students were not prepared for the amount of emotion involved. Think about it. You have people’s lives in your hands. Victims of assault and child abuse and rape and murder (well, not the actual victim). And what you help come about has huge impacts in the lives of everyone involved. Not only that, but you have to face very emotional situations on a daily basis. I think that’s true of writing as well. To truly do your best work, you have to put your heart on the page. You have to put your characters through hell and feel that hell as you write, or it won’t translate. Same with nonfiction ~ you’re working with people, and the best work is when you connect with your subjects deeply.

Finally, he said, “We teach life, and life isn’t easy.” We write life, and life isn’t easy. The best writing gets to the messiness of it, to the places that are hard, that are not black and white. But it’s worth it. Life is worth it, and the challenge of writing is worth it.


Carissa Lentz said...

It's interesting, because when I was an English Writing Major at Boise State University, I knew a few Pre-law students who were Literature majors and were taking writing classes with me. I've heard that English is a good Pre-law major because you have to think critically and to analyze texts. Both writers and lawyers do that. We also have to fight for the cause of our characters, whether they are guilty or not. You've made a neat connection in this post that has got me thinking.

Tamara said...

Sorry I missed this comment... :-)

Thanks, Carissa!

Have you found that different professions foster different strengths in their students? Great point about pre-law. I've found that engineers are good at classifying nuanced things, yet not so good at anticipating audience.