Writing the Lawyers and Literature Course

James R. Elkins

Writing for the Course

Parables & Law School Stories


  Try your hand at writing a law school parable. Or, a Lawyers and Literature course parable. Or for that matter, any kind of parable. You might think of this parable as an introduction to your course paper; or, it might become an epilogue to your paper. There is a real possibility that it will constitute a piece of junk writing from which you will be fortunate to salvage anything of value. If you find nothing in it that is salvageable, you might want to rethink how you go about writing. [On the garbage we produce when we write, and why it might not be such a bad thing, see: Notes on Peter Elbow. The notes from Peter Elbow, whose book, Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 1998) may help you with your writing and this first week writing prompt suggest that you should begin your course writing—now.

  Final exams may not be a topic you want to be thinking about as we get the Lawyers and Literature course underway, but you will have to say this about final exams: Exams are an impetus to pull together and fit together everything you know about a subject. With this power of final exams to help you focus in mind, I present the following Final Examination question for Lawyers and Literature, a question that assumes that you had a single one page reading assignment for the entire semester, and that one page was Franz Kafka's parable, "Before the Law": Lawyers and Literature Final Examination

 On my law school course on writing, see: The Lawyer as Writer

Parable Influenced Writings

Mary Kay Buchmelter, “In the Beginning: Justice and Mercy,” 8 (1) ALSA F. 4 (1984) [online text] [Buchmelter was a law student at West Virginia University College of Law when she wrote this essay.]

Jeremy Gilman, "The Real World of Law School," 24 Legal Stud. F. 19 (2000) [online text]

Law School Stories

Law School Stories: We begin the course-after we look at Kafka's parable, "Before the Law"-by reading some law school stories. One thing you might do with these stories is to read them with the idea that they might inspire you to write an account-call it a story if you will - of your own law school experience. I taught a course a few years ago called Memoir and Legal Education, and you might find ideas for your writing by perusing the course website: Memoir and Legal Education. You may find the suggested writing for Class 1 of that course of particular interest: Class 1, Memoir and Legal Education. In Lawyers and Literature you are not being asked to write a memoir but a writing that uses, in some way, the stories you read.

Law School Story Writings

Brenda Waugh, "A Theory of Employment Discrimination," 40 J. Legal Educ. 113 (1990) [online text ]

Ruth P. Knight, "Remembering," 40 J. Legal Educ. 97 (1990) [online text ]

[Brenda Waugh and Ruth Knight were students at the College of Law, West Virginia University.]

Videos (Getting Started in Thinking About Your Writing)

Top Ten Writing Rules From Famous Writers

On Writing

The Fictional World of Lowell Komie

Video (Thinking About Yourself as a Writer): Writers on Writing with Charlie Rose

Writing About Stories: You learn as a law student how to write about what we call cases (more accurately, appellate opinions) and to make legal arguments based on these cases. In "Lawyers and Literature," you need to start thinking about writing about stories. Unfortunately, we do not have a companion course on "How to Write About Stories." (This course might prove more valuable to lawyers than you might suspect.)

There are many ways to write with stories, and to write about them. I encourage you to find your own way. For my own efforts to do, what you are now asked to do, you might want to peruse my writing about Lowell Komie's stories. The place to begin is "Lowell B. Komie's Lawyer Stories," the preface to Lowell Komie's The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie (Swordfish Chicago, 2005). For a longer essay on Komie's fictional lawyers, see James R. Elkins, Meditations on the Odd Lives We Live, 31 Legal Stud. F. 885 (2007). For revised versions of the published essay, see:

The Law World Gets Real

Meditations on the Odd Lives We Live

A Letter to Lowell Komie

Professor Louise Harmon's Reading of Komie: Louise Harmon, a colleague whose writings I have read, admired, and published for several decades now has written a marvelous piece about Komie's stories. I recommend that you read the Harmon essay and note how she uses Komie's stories in her essay.

Louise Harmon, Illuminating the Dark: The Stories of Lowell B. Komie and the Pursuit of Meaningful Work, 31 Legal Stud. F. 851 (2007) [online text]

Stories and Their Invitations to Write: We talked about reading Kafka's parable with the idea that you read the parable and then learn that immediately upon finishing the reading, that you have being assigned to write an essay on or about the parable, and the question is, how would you start thinking about that writing.

I suspect that very story we read comes with its own hints and possibilities for writing. I am reading J.S. Marcus's "Centaurs" and in the first page of the story find some interesting possibilities. The narrator says, "I like the idea of private failure." We don't have to have any idea of what that idea means in the context of the story to find it interesting. I suspect it might be interesting enough to write about. Think about a writing with the title: Private Failure.

Shelia, the narrator, in "Centaurs" talks about going to a "mandatory law-school party" and a "mandatory tea at the Dean's house." Consider this for a writing: Law School: A Three Year Mandatory Party.

Sheila conjures up what I take to be an image of Pan, the Greek God, when she describes the editor of the law review as "half saint, half goat." Do you know any law school versions of Sheila's "half saint, half goat"? If you do, then you have something to write about.

In what sense is "Centaurs" a writer's response-you, of course, being the writer-to Kafka's "Before the Law"?

Is "Centaurs" a failed dream story? If so, perhaps it can be related to Kafka's "Before the Law" in some way that provides the basis for a writing.

Another suggested writing topic: What I Always Wanted to Be. This topic takes us back to the first sentence of "Centaurs": "The smartest man in our law-school class told me he wanted to be an actor." And then later, Sheila admits that she too "wanted to be an actress" and more recently has "toyed with the idea of becoming a cheif executive officer. How does becoming a lawyer play out in the pantheon of people you have wanted to be?

How about this: Inertia and Boredom in the Life of a Law Student. Sheila says, "Inertia seems to be getting me through law school. I don't move much. I wait for a professor to intimidate me into the subject at hand: arson, divorce, whatever." And then later, she says, "[i]n law school, you can feel boredom go from the benign to the maligant." There are pages of writing to be had in this idea of inertia and boredom.

And finally, in the closing paragraph, we have Sheila thinking, and I've followed the exact contours of her thinking to create a title for a writing: Transformations, Sublimations, Things Becoming Other Things.

Whether all of the stories turn out to be this fertile with ideas for writing, we must wait and see.

New Ways of Thinking About Writing

Poetry: We are now reading poetry. Poetry is a different kind of writing, a different way of thinking about the presentation and display of words on the page. Poetry suggest that we can use language in ways that does not require sentences and paragraphs, and, more basically, that not all writing must be in the linear form you find in a legal brief or a traditional essay.

On poetry as a form of working about the law school experience, see: Brenda Waugh, A Theory of Employment Discrimination, 40 J. Legal Educ. 113 (1990) [online text]

Fragments, Linked-Vignettes, Collage: As examples of new ways of thinking about "writing the course," you might want to peruse:

Ruthann Robson, "Notes from a Difficult Case" [online text]

Jason Wandling, "Estoppel" [online text]

James R. Elkins, "Life Adds Up: Notes for a Teacher's Memoir" [online text]

On the collage as a form for your writing,

Peter Elbow, Collage: Your Cheatin' Art
[Peter Elbow's Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process has long been one of my favorite books on how to write and how to think about writing]

Zen Mama's Teaching Blog
[a summary of Peter Elbow's collage form essay]

On vignettes: "A vignette is a short, well written scene. It does not have a plot, but it does reveal something about the elements in it. It may reveal character, mood or tone. It may have a theme or idea of its own the author wants to convey. It is the description of the scene or character that is important. A blog or diary entry can be considered a vignette." [Sylvia Ney, "Vignettes in Literature," on her blog, Writing in Wonderland]

Literature Vignette (Wikipedia)

How to Write a Vignette

The Use of Clustering in Writing a Vignette

Video: How to Write a Vignette

On using and thinking about "fragments" in writing: "There's something about the fragment, as a form of writing, which appeals to me. Probably because any truth or insight, or in fact, any recollection, rarely comes to us in whole. But in broken parts, all of a sudden, in a gasp." [Fragment as Art]

Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age

Writing the Course: I sometimes use the term "writing the course" to talk about one option for what you can do in your writing for "Lawyers and Literature." For an example of this kind of writing, and for this kind of way of thinking about writing for the course, you might find an essay by Deidre Purdy written as a student in this course over 15 years ago of interest: Deidre Purdy, Lawyers and Literature: As My Mother Lay Dying, Spring 1997, 22 Legal Stud. F. 293 (1998) [online text]

Descriptions of Writings (about books that could be about essays or about "writing the course")

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations v (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., G.E.M. Anscombe transl., 3rd ed., 1968)

I have written down all these thoughts as remarks, short paragraphs, of which there is sometimes a fairly long chain about the same subject, while I sometimes made a sudden change, jumping from one topic to another. -It was my intention at first to bring all this together in a book whose form I pictured differently at different times. But the essential thing was that the thoughts should proceed from one subject to another in a natural order and without breaks.

After several unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into such a whole, I realized that I should never succeed. The best that I could write would never be more than philosophical remarks; my thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination. —And this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction. —The philosophical remarks in this book are, as it were, a number of sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of these long and involved journeyings.

The same or almost the same points were always being approached afresh from different directions, and new sketches made. Very many of these were badly drawn or uncharacteristics, marked by all the defects of a weak draughtsman. And when they were rejected a number of tolerable ones were left, which now had to be arranged and sometimes cut down, so that if you looked at them you could get a picture of the landscape. Thus this book is really only an album.

James Ogilvy, Many Dimensional Man: Decentralizing Self, Society, and the Sacred 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977)

This book is an exploration, a series of log entries based on adventures in some little known lands of the intellect. Of course there are those who have gone before. But it is worth noting at the outset that these scribblings make no claims to be definite maps, only sketches drawn by a pen moving all too quickly before cold or storm forced a retreat to the safety of more familiar thoughts. Once the less familiar has become more familiar, others will doubtless find it both necessary and possible to improve upon these primitive charts.

Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking ix (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978)

This book does not run a straight course from beginning to end. It hunts; and in the hunting, it sometimes worries the same raccoon in different trees, or different raccoons in the same tree, or even what turns out to be no raccoon in any tree. It finds itself balking more than once at the same barrier and taking off on other trails. It drinks often from the same streams, and stumbles over some cruel country. It counts not the kill but what is learned of the territory explored.

Letting the Story Speak For Itself

I have the sense that some stories speak so directly that when we try to write about the story, we are charged with what may seem to be the simple task of finding those passages in the story that carry the weight of the story. This does not mean that there is only one way to write about the story or that every reader will agree on the passages to be selected or how they are to be presented or even what story they will be designed to tell.

The reading assignment for this week is Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych." In "Ivan Ilych: A Cautious Life" I attempt to demonstrate this idea of letting the story speak for itself.

Ivan Ilych-A Cautious Life
James R. Elkins


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