Legal Fictions: Why do so many lawyers become writers?
“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, then you do it for money.” –Virginia Woolf
Kirby – once the Honourable, but now upon his own frequent public insistence, mere Michael – once observed that within every great lawyer lives a failed poet. Fortunately, I chose not to be a great lawyer (so one can only hope that his observation applies inversely). I do, however, share the unlikely ambitions of so many graduates of law before me: I like to write fiction.
While writing is often viewed as perhaps one of the more indulgent pursuits (read: excuse to look like Eddie Morra from Limitless while dreaming of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literati parties) our society has to offer (and call a ‘career’), the truth is, Survive Law would not exist without it. I was a writer before I stumbled into an accidental love of law. In 2009, I took a gamble to combine the two and write about what I loved, and here we are – I assure you, quite accidentally.
Of course, the writer/lawyer crossover is about as common as your Hollywood singer/actress. John Grisham (The Firm, The Runaway Jury, The Rainmaker), David E. Kelly (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, Harry’s Law) Bernhard Schlink (The Reader), Kerry Greenwood (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries), and Stuart Littlemore, QC (Harry Curry: Counsel of Choice) all come to mind. Then there’s Washington Irving who barely passed the bar but gave us such classics as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Franz Kafka (The Trial, The Castle) was also a law graduate, and Banjo Paterson was admitted as a solicitor long before anyone read Clancy of the Overflow or The Man from Snowy River.
Of course if you’re talking about legal types and writing, you can’t miss law school dropout Harper Lee. Hey, Charles Dickens (Bleak House, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol) spent some time working as a law clerk, and author Gabriel García Márquez did a brief stint in law school before a Nobel Prize for Literature came knocking, so we could probably claim them too. Even former High Court Justice Ian Callinan has had several novels published. (He also writes plays and short stories).
So! If you’re thinking of joining the not-so-secret society of lawyer/writer wunderkinds, rest assured you’ll be in good company.
Now the real question is: what compels us, the legally trained and pessimistically minded, towards our fictional forays? Ostensibly transferable skills: writing (lots of it), an over-serve of masochistic inclinations, insomnia and obsessive research.
As Survive Law’s editor recently suggested in The Age, many law students never intend to practise. Neither did I. Most of my uni years were whiled away in pubs and poetry competitions. (Lies. That’s what first year looked like. Then the law came along and kidnapped my social life). As Ms. Virginia suggested, I first wrote for the love. Like all things you do for the love, it was cheesy and of questionable quality. Friends liked it, then strangers (and hey, a few publications and prize-givers). Since strangers have no vested interest in flattery, I figured I could go pro – with “The Great Novel.”
What does a lawyer or law student-turned writer look like? I never practised and I always wrote, but the law drummed discipline into my writing. Think obsessive, idiosyncratic research, frequently footnoted fiction (just in case you wanted to check my authorities) and killer, impossible deadlines (“I will write a chapter a week, or die.”)
I completed the first draft of my novel in less than a year. A lawyer’s discipline laid down the daily regimen: write before sunrise, head to work, research the next chapter in breaks, a lunch time swim to clear the mess of plot twists and red herrings from my brain, then an absent-minded afternoon of turning down dinner invitations as I prepared to hole up behind locked doors and write late into the night. The world outside kept turning. Friends checked in for progress reports and words of support as I sunk deep into writing.
On a lonely Saturday night in July last year, I tied the loose ends of my final chapter. Later that night my boyfriend called to find me sprawled on the bedroom floor, practically catatonic, listening to the XX over and over.
How does it feel, he asked.
“Like winning,” I said. “And losing.”
What makes good writing? To me, it will reveal truths already known in surprising, foreign light. Narrative as the vehicle for insight. For eleven months, I’d been driven by the conviction that I had a story and a message worth reading (and worth writing).
Every writer hopes for a compelling story, rich with insight, an instant classic. Every reader craves a compulsive read that will, at its very best, fundamentally change the way they view the world. It may be a long time, (it may be never), before my work could ever fall in such a category.
At 2am one Saturday night in July 2011, it didn’t matter. There was a whole world outside. After living in fiction for so long, I knew I had some serious living to do.
Wenee’s novel Wall Street Confessional, follows a rogue trader and casual gambler in the final heady days of the global financial crisis. From a spill over law school romance to the high finance hubs of NYC, Iceland and Macau, this legal thriller brims with sex, drugs and sky high gambler’s stakes – distinctly first world vices laid bare to bring the excesses of the last decade home for a bloody reckoning.
Wall Street Confessional will resume rewrites/edits in September 2012, when Wenee intends to jump on a jet plane to Thailand, tear apart draft number one, and emerge with the perfect novel (or die!). Given the odds, the latter seems likely. C’est la vie.
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