Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins

 Read to Write

In Lawyers and Literature, we use writing to:

put the mind to work on the lawyer stories we read, to engage serious and troubling texts, and to use these texts/stories to say something about our own lives and the profession we have taken up, indeed to focus on the possibilities and difficulties faced in linking the stories we read with stories we are living

investigate the interconnecting themes and motifs found in the stories

to recognize how, in literature, and in life, we deal with the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary in life

engage other readers with our own writings.



"An astonishing number of those who can read and write think that they do so rather well. I spent twenty years as a journalist, and I met all kinds of men and women who prided themselves on what they called their 'communication skills'; they would tell you, with an unconvincing show of modesty, that they thought they could write 'a pretty good letter,' It was my duty as an editor to deal with their pretty good letters, and I never ceased to be astonished at how badly people expressed themselves who did well in the world as lawyers, doctors, engineers, and the like. When they were angry they seemed unable to focus their anger; they roared like lions, and like lions they roared on no identifiable note. When they wished to express grief they fell into cliché and trivialized their sincere feeling by the awful prose in which they expressed it. When they were soliciting money for charity, they pranced and cavorted in coy prose, or else they tried to make the reader's flesh creep with tales of horrors that may have been true but did not sound true. I used to wonder what made them write as they did, and whenever I was able to find out I discovered that it was because of the dreadful prose they read and the way they read it. They admired cheap stuff, they imitated cheap stuff, and they appeared to have no understanding of how they cheapened their own minds and their powers of expression by doing so." [Robertson Davies, Reading and Writing 2-3 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, special ed., 1993)(1992)]

T.S. Eliot pointed out that "the individual cannot think and communicate his thought, the governor and legislator cannot act effectively or frame his laws, without words, and the solidity and validity of these words is in the care of the damned and despised litterati. When their work goes rotten . . . when their very medium, the very essence of their work, the application of word to thing goes rotten, i.e., become slushy and inexact, or excessive or bloated, the whole machinery of social and of individual thought and order goes to pot. This is a lesson of history, and a lesson not yet half learned." [T.S. Eliot, Literary Essays of Ezra Pound 21 (New York: New Directions Book, 1935)]




[Albert Ellery Berg, The Universal Self-Instructor (New York: Thomas Kelly, Publisher, 1883)—used with permission of the Florida Center for Instructional Technology]

Read to Write

In the following commentary, David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, Ways of Reading (St. Martin's Press, 4th ed., 1996), offer us a way to think about reading as it relates to our writing:

The issue is not only what students read, but what they can learn to do with what they read.

We learned that if our students had reading problems when faced with long and complex texts, the problems lay in the way they imagined a reader—the role a reader plays, what a reader does, why a reader reads (if not simply to satisfy the requirements of a course). [v]

Bartholomae and Petrosky invite students to read texts "that leave some work for a reader to do," texts that "invite students to be active, critical readers," texts "that present powerful readings of common experience" and " open up the familiar world and make it puzzling, rich, and problematic." [vi]

When you stop to talk or write about what you've read, the author is silent; you take over—it is your turn to write, to begin to respond to what the author said. At that point the author and his or her text become something you construct out of what you remember or what you notice as you go back through the text . . . working from passages or examples but filtering them through your own predisposition to see or read in particular ways. [2]

Reading . . . can be the occasion for you to put things together, to notice this idea rather than that one, to follow a writer's announced or secret ends while simultaneously following your own. When this happens, when you forge a reading of a story or any essay, you make your mark on it, casting it in your terms. But the story makes its mark on you as well, teaching you not only about a subject . . . but about a way of seeing and understanding a subject. The text provides the opportunity for you to see through someone else's powerful language, to imagine your own familiar settings through the images, metaphors, and the ideas of others. [3-4]

Readers learn to put things together by writing. It is not something you can do, at least not to any degree, while you are reading. It requires that you work on what you have read, and that work best takes shape when you sit down to write. [4]

To write about a story or essay, you go back to what you have read to find phrases or passages that seem difficult or troublesome or mysterious. If you are writing an essay of your own, the work that you are doing gives a purpose and a structure to that rereading. [4]

The meaning of what you read is "something you develop as you go along" and "is determined by what you do with the [story], by the connections you can make and your explanation of why those connections are important," by your account of that importance.[8]

"What strong readers know is that they have to begin, and they have to begin regardless of their doubts or hesitations. What you have after your first reading of an essay [or story] is a starting place, and you begin with your marked passages or examples or notes, with questions to answer, or with problems to solve." [8-9]

"To read generously, to work inside someone else's system, to see your world in someone else's terms—we call this 'reading with the grain.' It is a way of working with a writer's ideas, in conjunction with someone else's text." [11] "This is a way of getting a tentative or provisional hold on a text, its examples and ideas; it allows you a place to begin to work." [Id.]

"Strong readers . . . remake what they have read to serve their own ends, putting things together, figuring out how ideas and examples relate, explaining as best they can material that is difficult or problematic. . . ." [12]

Bartholomae and Petrosky encourage their students to be "strong readers" and to "actively interpret" what they read, "to use a story or an essay as a way of framing experience, as a source of terms and methods to enable you to interpret something else—some other text, events and objects around you, or your own memories and experience." [15]

You have been in school for several years, long enough for your experiences in the classroom to seem natural, inevitable. The purpose of [writing] is to invite you to step outside a world you may have begun to take for granted, to look at the ways you have been taught and at the unspoken assumptions behind your education. [755]

Writing—Some Ideas

"For students whose recent training stresses precise, structured, and explicit analysis, the inferential and expressive freedom of . . . fiction can be disorienting. . . . Some students may have so successfully transformed themselves into legal writers that expressive prose no longer communicates anything . . . ."

—-Alexander Scherr & Hillary Farber, Popular Culture as a Lens on Legal Professionalism, 55 S.C.L. Rev. 351, 378 (2003)

What Brought You to the Course. Write It. Give yourself a test. See if you can write two paragraphs (or stretch yourself and make the writing an entire page), in which you tell someone—anyone really—how you ended up taking Lawyers and Literature. Note the temptation to say something like: "I thought the course would be interesting." "I needed to take a break from more traditional law school courses." "I needed to take another course to satisfy the perspective requirement." "The course was being offered at a convenient time." Any one of these statements may be true. But in this writing, see if you can get beyond the cliches and conventional ways of talking about your decision to take the course.

For this writing, you face an interesting question, maybe even a perplexing one: How can I write about my decision to take Lawyers and Literature in a way that might actually hold the reader's interest? Or might provoke or entice the reader to want to know more about me? If you are tempted to write, "I needed to take a break from the more traditional law school courses." Are you trying to say that you have experienced a hole, a void, an emptiness in legal education that you secretly hope the course might fill? If so, try to capture what has been missing in your legal education. Or perhaps you have an inordinate love for books, or a particular book, and it is this passion for books and for reading that brings you to the course. How can you talk about this love, this passion?

The basic idea here is to find a way to talk about your interest in literature, your desire to escape the mind-numbing thought of reading more judicial opinions, or the idea of pursuing what you found most educational in your undergraduate studies without sounding like a great bore. Is it really the case that law students and everything they write must be boring? I assume not. Look at Sheila, the protagonist in J.S. Marcus, "Centaurs." The comment and observations that Sheila makes about legal education and her fellow students are the exact opposite of boring. Indeed, I would like to meet Sheila, buy her an espresso at the Blue Moose, and hear more about her days as a law student.

Get Your Teacher Involved in Your Writing. Send me an email message and something you have written. Tell me what you tried to do in the writing? What obstacles did you face in completing the writing?

If you don't want to talk about something you have written, you might want to discuss your concerns about writing, what you need to know to get more life into your writing. What concerns about writing would you like to address during the course of the semester? [See: Baggage Our Students Carry as Writers]

Get A Colleague in the Course Involved in Your Writing. What most of us want as writers are good readers. Your instructor may or may not turn out to be a good reader of your work. Try your writing out on a fellow student. What you want from a colleague (and sometimes from a teacher) is what Peter Elbow calls a "movie of the mind." You aren't asking someone to edit your writing or instruct you on proper grammar. What you most want to know is what kind of effect your writing had on the reader.

Get Involved With Your Own Writing. It's never too late to become a writer, to develop a serious interest in writing, to make a commitment to the craft of writing. Thinking about yourself as a writer might be a way, an indirect way, to think about yourself as a lawyer.

Here are some suggestions on learning to write:

Write. Most writers struggle to learn the craft of writing. Read Kafka's parable, "Before the Law" and write me a short letter in which you talk your way through your first reading of the parable. Write something, even if only a few paragraphs, about each of the stories we read in the course. See if you can begin to discern the difference between commonplace/boring ideas about what you read and statements/observations in which you consciously try to avoid boring your reader.

Write about your experience in law school, about the difficulties you've encountered, the difficulties you have confronted.

Observe what goes on in the classroom. Write an account of what you observe.

Keep a journal. Write in the journal anything you want to write. You are writing this for yourself, or for no one. You might write in a journal the kind of writing exercises, I have outlined here. Keep the journal with you during the day and make notes about things you observe, things people say that catch your ear, things that seem to have a connection to the stories you are reading.

Do a 5 minute "free writing" exercise. Write for five minutes about anything and whatever that comes to mind. Don't worry about trying to make this your best writing. Write. Write. Write. Peter Elbow, one of my favorite writing teachers, explains how we write better if we write in ways that are unconstrained, unedited, uncensored. Of course, the more "free writing" we produce, the more writing we have to censor and to edit. The more you write, the more you are willing to throw away the garbage you find in your writing. Elbow claims that in writing freely, writing without censoring, and writing often, you will indeed produce garbage but writing freely and extensively also produces the best opportunity to create ideas and writing that will reflect your best thoughts, your voice, your depth, and whatever sparkle you might have in you. Elbow does not ignore the importance of editing, but laments the way we try to edit as we write. Elbow claims that writing and editing are two distinct tasks and we mistakenly try to do them both at the same time and that doing so impedes our writing.

If you are interested in becoming a good writer, you might want to read Peter Elbow's Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed. 1998). The title of the book makes it sound like another how-to-do-it manual and it turns out the book is a writer's manual but a most unusual one. Elbow writes about writing in an engaging and thoughtful way. His writing is a model of clarity and human sensibility. It turns out to a manual that one actually wants to read cover to cover.

More Thoughts on Writing

“By absorbing and responding to the story, we work upon ourselves, upon how we represent the world to ourselves, upon our values and our assumptions about the things of the world, and upon the decisions we will ultimately make in response to those things. In the process, we become so deeply immersed in the reality represented by the work, in its events, emotions, and ideas, that we become collaborators in the act of creating that world, resonating in a metaphorical way to the conjunction of our lives and the words of the writer. The distance between self and other is diminished, reduced, and finally disappears altogether as we round out and complete the work in greater detail and complexity that any mere words on a page can hope to do. In a very real sense, reading becomes a literary event becomes a composing activity, and we become writers as well as readers.” [Charles Anderson, “”Literature and Medicine: Why Should the Physician Read . . . or Write?” in Stuart Peterfreud (ed.), Literature and Science: Theory & Practice 33-58, 49-50 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990)]

"An effective piece of writing creates the illusion of a writer speaking to a reader. The language, although written, sounds as if it were spoken. Speech is the glue that holds the piece together. The writing voice provides the intensity that captures the reader; the voice provides the music and grace and surprise that keeps the reader interested; the voice communicates the emotion and the mood that make the reader involved.

. . . .

[O]ur students must have the experience of writing what they do not expect to write. That is the essential writing experience, and if you do not feel that firsthand, you cannot understand writing.

. . . .

The writer, in writing, uses language to find out what the writer already knows and also uses language to teach himself or herself what may be known. How? How may it be known? By making language, and then hearing what it has to say." [Donald Murray, Expecting the Unexpected: Teaching Myself—and Others—to Read and Write 35, 45, 55-56 (Boynton/Cook Publishers/Heinemann, 1989)] [Donald Murray's Essential Delay in Writing]

"I am convinced that the only way to engage and test the minds of students is to have them write and write and write. But if they write, we should read their writing and comment on it for its ability to frame and sustain an argument, for the use of evidence, and for its capacity to define important issues concerning the text at hand." [Richard Marius, "Reflections on the Freshman English Course," in James Engell & David Perkins (eds.), Teaching Literature: What is Needed Now 169-190 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988)]

Ways to Use Writing

The Narrative Essay

Narrative Essay



  Lawyers and Literature Home Page