Recovering Lawyer: Writing a Novel

When I started exploring leaving law, I realized that what had drawn me to law was the power of the words that lawyers could harness. I was drawn to the eloquence and justice of many of the Warren court decisions. So with the realization that it was all about the words, I began exploring writing.

Once upon a time, you wanted to be a writer. Do it now and energize your life.

Despite the fact that I wrote on, rather than graded on, to Duke Law Journal (you could still do that back in the Jurassic), I really didn’t think I could write terribly well. Particularly, I didn’t think I could write what I really longed to write: fiction.

But I started working through The Artist’s Way, and then The Right to Write, both by Julia Cameron, creativity midwife extraordinaire. I started writing short stories. I stumbled upon an excellent writing group. (Good writing groups are really hard to find—they often are filled with blocked artists or other toxic personalities who get their jollies from tearing down fledgling work.) Even as I found a writing job, as a legal editor and reporter, I kept working on fiction.

But the fatigue of being a new parent knocked me out, and for 7 years I’ve written non-fiction, mostly job-related. Mind you, I loved a lot of that writing, and have learned so much about the craft of writing day in and day out. But non-fiction for me is the safe choice–it doesn’t scare me the way fiction does.

Inspired this fall by working through Walking in This World, another Cameron gem, and also by some of my brilliant, wondrous clients (thank you! thank you!), I decided to heed the call of an idea that’s been hounding me for more than a decade. This work feels huge and, honestly, intimidating as all hell.

Spiritual Exhilaration

Cameron talks about how many of the neuroses and psychoses of blocked artists disappear when they finally sit the hell down and do the work they need to do. Can I just tell you how much I hate that she’s right?

When I’m actually working on the novel, I feel so calm, centered and energized. Life is just sweeter. My family annoys me less. Life’s slings and arrows seem less outrageous.

Trust me, this isn’t happening because I’m so impressed with the quality of my work. I imagine a lot of it sucks, and that I’ll edit out half of it in the end. When I say “working on,” what I’m doing is just showing up every day and writing something. I don’t have a word goal. If it’s two sentences, that is fine.

There’s a spiritual exhilaration when you attempt the work you need to be doing. The real thrill is when you try something you’re not entirely sure you can do, and then find out you actually can. Martha Beck talk about this in a superb interview she gave about a year ago. (Martha Beck! Talking for an hour! for FREE!) Download it and get inspired on an hour-long walk.

5 Tips for Lawyer-Writers

For those who are longing to try fiction or other writing but are afraid, here are five tips that are working to keep me writing:

  • Be OK with being afraid of the work, and do it anyway. One of my chief fears about this novel is that it would overtake my life, and I would lose control. That is definitely happening, but in a much happier way than I envisioned. I think about the characters and plot a bunch–instead of all of those afore-mentioned slings and arrows. It’s a good thing.
  • Don’t outline. I have only the haziest—as in San Francisco-fog haziest—of ideas about exactly what’s going to happen in this novel. Nearly every day, I get to discover something new about a character or the events in their lives. It keeps things interesting, and also gives the work space to grow the way it needs to, not the way I need it to. Outlines are like safety nets. Yet great writing isn’t about safe, it’s about risk. It’s fine to write down what you already know about your work, but don’t let your inner critic tell you that you have to KNOW everything that’s going to happen before you can write anything.
  • Go out for Artist Dates twice a week. They don’t need to be related at all to your work, and probably shouldn’t be. They’re a way to take your inner writer out for some fun, to prime the pump of your creative flow. I personally favor antique shops, fabric stores and looking at art glass, but it can be anything that is fun and festive for you. If you’re doing intense work, you’re fishing from your image well pretty heavily. It needs restocking or you’ll run into a wall, and possibly mistake overfishing for lack of talent, drive, commitment, etc. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Go have fun instead.
  • Commit to a schedule. I’m a confirmed night owl, but I’m getting up early—sometimes even 5:30 early— daily so that I can have the quiet I need, before the husband, the boy and the cat all start vying for my attention. At first, don’t even worry about whether you’re doing much work at all. Just show up and think about it for a bit.
  • Have really low standards. Writers are horrible about trying to make every sentence perfect before going to the next. That’s a sure path to low productivity and eventually, no writing. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve gone back to read work, fiction and non-fiction, that I thought was crap when I wrote it, yet upon re-reading much later saw brilliance. Your job is to get words on the page that you can re-arrange and polish up later. Cameron calls it “laying track,” Anne Lamott calls it “shitty first drafts.” Whatever you call it, just write whatever ridiculous things come into your head. You can toss what you don’t like some other time.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys to tap into their creativity and use it to power change in their work and life. She offers discounted sample coaching sessions. Email jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to schedule yours. It’s an hour that can change your life!

15 thoughts on “Recovering Lawyer: Writing a Novel

  1. Fantastic! Lucky you to be doing that work. I also Love Walking in this World. I have read it three times. Each time I experienced many instances of synchronicity while reading. Enjoy the process. I know that’s a cliche but that’s because it’s true.

  2. Great advice! “Lower your standards” is critical for getting that all-important first draft down. First drafts are supposed to suck. Nora Roberts says, “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank one.” One trick I use to keep the inner editor at bay: I reduce the window on my computer so I can see only 4-5 lines at a time. If I can’t see it, I won’t edit it. Using an Alphasmart device does the same thing and is ultra-portable to boot.

    • I’ll go you one better, Grace: I actually hand-write my first drafts. Much harder to delete entirely, though of course a big fat black Sharpie could do it. I find I just draw arrows and stuff, rather than scribble through stuff. But great advice for those times I draft on screen.

  3. Great post, Jennifer. In part spurred on by your blog, I left my firm job to become a full-time writer this past Spring. I caught on as a sportswriter for an NFL team, and am trying to make the time to work on fiction in my off-hours. I just wanted to thank you for showing me that I COULD make a change; I am infinitely happier than I was as a lawyer.

    Also, one question: have you looked into self-publishing vs. legacy publishing and all of that good stuff? The debate’s actually pretty interesting, and I think the industry’s reaching a tipping point.

    • DJ, that is so thrilling that you’ve found a great writing gig!

      I’m nowhere near thinking about self-publishing v. legacy. That kind of stuff tends to set off my inner critic, so for now I’m avoiding the whole topic. I do think you’re right about the tipping point–by the time I finish the novel and get it through a thorough edit, the whole landscape may look entirely different than it does now.

  4. With the e-publishing boom, there’s also a bigger market for stories having “weird” lengths (like novellas). I personally am a huge novella fan. When people say they want to write, I don’t understand why they focus so much on novels. Not every story idea can or should be stretched to novel-length. Some stories are better told in a shorter format.

  5. Great post, Jennifer! I’m a recovering lawyer as well, and I’ve found my calling in writing fiction. I’ve made a lot of progress this year on my work. However, I’m still struggling to create a “writer’s life” (advice I got during a writer’s residency this summer). I still owe what basically amounts to a mortgage in law school debt. I was at a large law firm when I first got out of school, but there was no way I could have stayed there and paid down my loans without having a mental breakdown. Trying to find work that allows me the time and creative space to write is difficult, but at least I know what, in my heart, I feel I should be doing.

    • What would a writer’s life look like, exactly? Maybe like the one you’ve got–after all, you’re writing, and you’re living.

      I think the key is not to find the space, but to make having it your priority. If that means getting up early to write, so that your writing gets the best part of you–well, there are worse things. And I say this as a confirmed night owl.

      Sounds like you are making good progress on your work. Kudos!

  6. Jennifer, thanks for sharing the interview I did with Martha from December 2010. She gave great takeaways for my listeners in that show. I also just recently interviewed her in December 2011 about her latest book FINDING YOUR WAY IN A NEW WORLD.

    Happy New Year!

    • Thanks Koren! I’ve been meaning to listen to that interview. I have Finding Your Way in my hot little hands, and hope to dive in this week. I’m sure I’ll be writing about it when I do.

      Thanks for your shows, they are a wonderful resource.

  7. Congratulations on this. I have actually considered writing a novel. You’ve really inspired me to revisit this idea. I love the advice on NOT writing an outline. Go with the flow is more of my writing style and this is advice I think I’ll take and appreciate.

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