Lawyer as Writer

Inheritance in Ink

Ruth Knight


["Inheritance in Ink" was written for a "Women and the Legal Profession" course taught by Professor James R. Elkins. The essay appears here with permission of the author.]

I come from a rich heritage of journal writers. My dad, as his father before him, rises at 5:00 every morning to spend an hour or so alone reflecting, recording his thoughts and hopes about ordinary daily events. Dad is not a philosopher or a poet; he is a son of Mormon pioneers, told by God that recording one's personal journey across the plains of life is a commandment which ranks with the ten big ones. Faded pages penned by camp fire light to the tune of "Come, Come Ye Saints" speak poignantly and personally of my blood ancestors' mid nineteenth century migration over road-less mountains and deserts across most of a continent. When the trek of law school and living fatigues me, threatening to break down my resistance to despair, I sing thinly, "Come, come ye saints; no toil nor labor fear, but with joy, wend your way. Though hard to you, this journey may appear . . . ," and I begin to feel like I am not singing alone. Then I write in my journal.

I am writing now to figure out why I write for myself. I, too, am a child of Mormon pioneers, and subject to the commandment to keep a personal history. But I do not write out of "letter of the law" obedience to a rule. The writing flows in my blood, but differs from that of my ancestors. I churn thoughts onto paper about everything from my grocery list to the world economy to night dreams to insane inner dialogues. The writing comes out as fragmented prose, new poetry forms, and pictures tapped out with the typewriter. To capture a mood I write vertically, backwards, or with various handwritings. I laugh and cry and fume on the page. I write carefully and then scribble like a doctor writing out a prescription. When I write quietly in acceptable English first person, my writing resembles the journal writing of my ancestors, the way my face resembles theirs' in old photographs.

Perhaps I learned the habits of personal writing from my parents, the way I learned to miter the corners of sheets when I make beds or to say the blessing on the food before I eat. Actually my mother has no journal pedigree; she kept a journal only after she married Dad, and converted to Mormonism. Mom is intelligent, probably gifted, but she would rather read than record, and her journal shows it. A typical day reads: "Catalogued books all morning at library—Prescription for Benadril at Coburn Drug, $12.95—finally got letters off to kids—.

When a vacation suitcase containing their journals escaped from the luggage rack of the car and was lost somewhere in the Arizona desert in the fall of 1976, Dad, heartbroken, tried to salvage whatever he could in a new blank book he rushed to the nearest store to buy. He spent evenings doggedly attempting to recapture the courage of his downstream neighbors on the Teton River, as well as the efficiency of the Mormon Church and the U.S. Government in dealing with the Teton Dam disaster in that Idaho summer of 1976. He, of course, wrote about his frustration over the ten month gap created by the "suitcase disaster." Mom's reaction, recorded a couple weeks later (she frequently procrastinates journal writing and then catches up in an efficient hour or two) was: "Lost suitcase off luggage rack—searched road side—no luck—called state patrol but not holding my breath that they'll find it—our diaries, MY 1976 INCOME TAX RECORD, were in that suitcase—Uncle Sam will never believe this one."

Dad, thanks to his diligent forebears, has a genealogy that he traces back to the middle ages in almost every line. Mom had to start from scratch and ran into difficulties because the official records were in Swedish or German. She took responsibility for teaching us the value of individual and family records. Before I went to school we used to sit together on the living room floor working on my books. She placed black and white photos in my album with little corners she bought from Woolworths in Idaho Falls, labeling the dark album paper with white ink that smelled like hospitals. Equipped with blunt tipped kindergarten scissors and a paste pot, I stuck pictures cut out of old Saturday Evening Posts (Norman Rockwell covers were our favorites) in a newsprint scrapbook with two puppies on the front. She read to me, not only from classic children's literature, but from the meticulous life histories of Dad's people and from Dad's journal which retold the funny things I had done and said as a baby.

Ellen said she asked Ruthie what she wanted for lunch and Ruthie answered, "chocolate jam." Baffled, Ellen put her up on the kitchen counter and said, "show me." The little monkey pointed right to the peanut butter. By the way, she also calls mustard "weeney butter." She's not boring to eat with.

I got Mom's own family stories from a tradition even older than Dad's-the oral one. Whenever I complained about what we were having for dinner, she said, "Shut up and eat your weevils." I laughed knowing the oft repeated story of Mom's childhood when Aunt Evelyn, a notoriously picky eater, had whined, "Do I have to eat my oatmeal? It has weevils in it." Grandma, who impatiently anticipated a long day of branding cattle and thus needed to get the children off to the one room school, retorted sharply, "Shut up and eat your weevils." Evelyn did. When Grandma cleaned up breakfast to fix lunch for the men, she saw to her horror that the oatmeal everyone had eaten did, indeed, have weevils in it.

In grade school my bedroom began to resemble a cross between a second hand store and a trash can at a printing office. I kept everything—old reading workbooks, outgrown clothes, toys I no longer played with, notes kids had written me, pictures I drew or collected, and especially the messy looking piles of little books I wrote on typing paper, bound with staples and illustrated with crayoned pictures of busy animals wearing human clothes. The newsprint scrapbooks multiplied, filled with party hats, school papers, programs, tickets, pressed leaves and flowers, confetti, crackerjack favors, and elephant jokes . . . I felt driven to preserve everything which spoke to me of a time, place, or person I had experienced.

One year my Sunday School teacher gave us little "treat favors" when we were reverent: little airplanes made from sticks of gum and lifesavors, corn candy and licorice turkeys, gumdrop snowmen, popcorn ball trains, and Easter eggs. In May, my mother smelled a rotten Easter egg and traced its source to an under bed, bug infested, box of treat favors that were "too nice to eat." She told me I better hold onto anything particularly precious, because, much as she hated to see me cry, she was going through my room with a front end loader.

Mom bought me a little five year diary to celebrate the "room shoveling" and I wrote: "Cleaned my room and took boxes of stuff to the basement—Put perfume bottles on my dresser. Mom says it's beginning to look like a teenager lives here." I filled every little space in that diary with my mother's concise historical log method. I never wrote about how strongly I identified with her, almost to the exclusion of my dad, though the little book says it between the lines. In the remote valley where we lived during the nineteen sixties, a lot of girl's fathers were macho. They raced snowmobiles, drove big trucks, and hunted elk. They all seemed tall, muscled, and full of talk about football strategy or bull riding. When they entered rooms, women got quiet except to ask if they were hungry.

In contrast, my father was small, mostly uninterested in sports (he did love casting flies and fishing through the ice on a winter lake) and was often accused of allowing Mom to "wear the pants." When at someone else's house where men congregated in one room and the women in the other, he often went with the women or included women in the men's conversation. He got tears in his eyes when the neighbors gave him a surprise birthday party, when he accidentally stumbled upon an injured doe lying trembling in a thicket with her newborn fawn, and when I played, "Come, Come Ye Saints" on the piano.

When, as an adult, I finally began hearing women's issues for the first time, I realized that a woman who knows her own mind appreciates a man like Dad who treats her respectfully and demonstrates human emotions which have too long been labeled feminine. Dad's journaling could be, at the least partially, responsible for his gentleness and sensitivity. Dad's parents (his father was a Mormon bishop and patriarch) raised him to be a strong "head of household" both temporally and spiritually, and to "honor his priesthood" so that he could "marry for eternity" and raise a "happy, eternal family." Dad tried to follow their counsel, but after thirteen years his first marriage failed anyway.

My father wrote through his misery. He wrote of how married life should be and how it was. He wrote of loneliness and meaningless jobs. He wrote of meeting Mom, of renewed hope for his future and hers. He learned with his pen never to allow disagreements to fester, writing until some sort of resolution appeared. He wrote of everyday joys, firmly believing that "great experiences are the result of great appreciation." When small successes came his way, he wrote "it shows lack of gratitude to the Lord if we do not record our blessings." Dad did not just write a journal; his journal wrote him. Writing everyday for over half of a century truly expanded his humanness, brought him nearer his inner spirit, although such was never his articulated purpose.

As a teenager I thought my little five line a day diary was the only writing I did worth keeping, so it was all I kept. But I clearly remember how funneling a bit of creativity into an English assignment to "write a paragraph with a well supported thesis sentence," or to "compose a poem in iambic pentameter" was my favorite game. When our high school teachers became fed up with disruptive note passing in class, they began punishing offenders by publishing the embarrassing notes in the school paper. I had a heyday writing juicy love-letters referring to persons in the small school and signing other people's names (imitating handwriting was a secret specialty). Students soon realized a phantom was loose, but the teachers bought the hoax until an English teacher recognized the writing style never really changed. She announced her wish that the ghost show herself in English class. I was dying to tell on myself or "be caught" but never dared.

No one discovered the phantom even when I began writing scripts for outrageous class skits put on for the student body. My themes included boys dressed up as girls who made the audience howl when they popped each other's balloon bosoms, a voodoo ceremony wherein everyone who was "too perfect" got the pins, and a wide eyed school secretary who did the principal's, custodian's, and guidance counselor's work in addition to her own, and said, as she mopped up after the school plumbing froze, "A girl really can't learn secretarial work in business school- she has to get out in the real world."

In everyday conversation I bounced, giggled, and chattered about makeup, boys, dances, contact lenses, requirements for geometry, summer jobs, seminary, and FHA. I went to church at least twice on Sundays and a couple of times during the week. I faithfully did homework, stuffed Kleenex in chickenwire floats whenever we had a parade, baby-sat, and won Betty Crocker Homemaker contests. My life seemed far far away from anti-war demonstrations, race riots, drugs, communism, "women's lib," and "new morality."

But when I wrote letters or notes, something otherwise invisible appeared on the paper. A mind full of jumbled ideas, like a cluttered childhood room, could be cleaned up (and I wanted a clean mind) by writing out the complexities disguised in reports of everyday life around me, occasionally embellishing the facts to make the "truths" stand out more.

For a year and a half I wrote every other day to a Marine Corporal in Vietnam whom I had never met. On in-between days I wrote to a missionary in Chili. In typed or crazily written, illustrated (I drew pictures, traced cartoons, taped clippings, and collaged anything that would fit in an envelope) letters running four to ten pages average, I detailed the thrills of climbing steep shale in jeeps; the ski bums who made free cafe meals from tea water, ketchup, and crackers; the senior boy who had three girls pregnant at once; the dedicated church teacher who decorated our classroom every week, brought us homemade snacks, made us gifts, stuttered when we were invariably rude or unappreciative, and eventually took her own life; the parade we had for the band teacher who retired after teaching in our school for forty-two years; the Sierra Club hikers who climbed the Grand Teton without registering and froze in a July snowstorm; the Hell's Angel who was seriously injured when his cycle frightened the stage coach horses in Jackson Hole and one reared and came down on him; the feel of tired feet in an alpine stream after hiking ten miles up with a forty pound pack; the "cowboys-turned-soldiers" who came home on leave, shaved the heads of "all dirty hippies" and threw them in Flat Creek for a "bath" in six below zero weather; the "girl fight" over a boy where the snowbank was blood stained until spring melt because Judy ripped off Kathy's ringletted fall; and two of us playing the piano as one when I broke my left arm and my sister broke her right.

I ordered and reordered the facts of my stories. Once I found a home for the ideas and cleaned out my cluttered room of a mind I could get on with the purposeful thoughts I was supposed to be having. Just before my corporal's discharge, he wrote, "Who is this girl with the ability to say what is deep in her heart without ever 'writing it out loud?'" He told me he loved me, and promised to drive the three hundred miles to visit as soon as he arrived in Salt Lake. Thrilled about the impending visit but terrified lest he love the in person Ruth less than the letter writer Ruth, I mailed him a four year old photo of me at thirteen in cat-eyed glasses with pimples painted on with a red magic marker. I never heard from him again.

Having convinced myself that I wrote the letters to attract boyfriends, I ceased letterwriting when I went to college and learned to attract young men without writing. My daily log fizzled out.
I still liked English courses, but being practical, I majored in elementary education so I would have a "way to make a living in case something happened to my husband."

After my first year of college, I revived my letterwriting because my new fiancé went home to the east coast for the summer. He worked two jobs and "didn't have much time to write." I wrote two or three hours every day. His mother said, "Any girl who would write that many letters must really be in love."

After marriage I thought is quit writing. I felt guilty if I was seen reading a book or writing for "no reason" when there was dust under the bed . . . and there was always dust under the bed. But years later as I was packing for law school I found boxes filled with evidence to the contrary. I found note books and papers from undergraduate school with margins full of stream of consciousness poetry and descriptions of teachers, students, college apartments, and friends who did not go to college; over three hundred church lessons and talks I had given; short stories hurriedly penned for church contests, scores of mimeographed newsletters sent to far away family informing them of the escapades of my growing family and our moves around the country; baby books for my children with anecdotes written by "them" when they were toddlers. I had forgotten my almost instinctual need to get my life out onto tablets. My erratically kept spiral tablet journals received the results of a mind and soul that wouldn't be quiet during such intense times as childbirth, piercing cultural barriers in new towns, spiritual reverie, and the highs and lows of interpersonal relationships.

The tablets became my touchstone in an erratic journey toward a promised land I had been brought up to seek above all else. Convinced that full time wife and mothering was the straight and narrow way, I doggedly plodded on, directly into ruts and rainstorms I could have avoided. Proceeding as the crow flies when one has no wings, entails climbing over detour signs instead of obeying them, fording rivers instead of floating downstream as far as a bridge, and spending impatient months in winter quarters of the mind. With a hand slightly resembling my father's, I recorded the toils and labors I feared, as well as my need to journey with joy. When government budget cuts finally strangled me husband's job, he decidedly pushed me from the kitchen, offering to put me through law school with any job he could get, as an alternative to casting me unceremoniously into the job market and any job I could get. (Either he saw great potential in me or else he wanted me so busy I could no longer have time to manipulate his life according to my Zion Map. Probably both.)

When law school loomed as reality, the tablets held lists of things to do and records of tasks completed: "...Packed books all morning—Sent deposit for married housing, $50.00—Finally got a letter off to Mom and Dad."

My first law school writing assignment, a legal memorandum received a C grade and I nearly died of shame. Determined to be an A student again I diligently developed the necessary mechanical skills to sort out irrelevancies and dispose of them in order to purify my writing; the memo grades went up to B+. The final first-year writing assignment was an appellate brief for moot court. I felt that I had just figured out what a rachet was and now someone wanted me to use it to put a jet engine together. I wrote and rewrote until I had used a ream of paper. Dry, mechanical logic is objective, but unpersuasive. A brief must be persuasive. The facts of the case I researched were interesting. I ordered and reordered the interesting facts that favored the side I was assigned to write on until my arguments were strong and believable. The result satisfied me in much the same way mailing letters to Vietnam and Chili had done years before. But when I handed the brief in and was allowed to see the briefs others had written, I cried. Their writing was intelligent, legal, and authoritative. Mine was just a series of little stories. I interrupted the professor and frantically told her that I had not understood what I was supposed to do that I had done the assignment wrong. From her response, I gathered that lots of people do legal writing wrong—and it is their own problem, not the professor's. A week later the same professor took me aside to speak about the brief. I thought I had failed. She said, "I just wanted you to know that when I read your brief, I had to stop reading briefs."

My heart fell.

She continued, "I said to a colleague, I have just read the best brief I have ever seen. The bulk of briefs are lawyerish and logical. But yours is unique, accurate, and humanly persuasive. If I were the judge you would have me in the bag." She gave the brief an A+. Even better than the good grade was proving that legal writers do not have to throw their creative writing in the "irrelevancy" dumpster.

After the Moot Court success, I turned final exams with an almost religious mania. I copiously wrote hundreds of pages of class and textbook outlines. I memorized them all. I worked seventeen hour days right through Easter vacation.

A law student receives no continuing feedback on any class except research and writing. She simply takes one enormous and intimidating essay examination at the end of the semester which holds her responsible for everything covered in a course including the heavy textbook. Typical test questions are not questions; they are pages of entangled messes of human problems, plus intricate subtleties of evolving legal principles. The student has three to five hours to define scores of issues, both factual and legal to unravel the confusion through cool headed professional analysis and to write efficient applications to all the impossible problems she is lucky enough to spot. Unfortunately, when I sat for the tests, I had moot court on the brain instead of mechanical objectivity. I happily manipulated facts to create rich one sided prose as I had done in Moot Court. I even added very un-legal personal comments such as, "I know from experience that it is possible to see drug paraphernalia without recognizing it, because once I saw a hash pipe and thought it was a terrarium."

The devastation of receiving mediocre grades on those tests absolutely silenced me. I wrote nothing, not even an answer to the letter from a classmate thankful to be on academic probation because it meant the law school did not throw him out. My frustration was illogical and I knew it. Many students would gladly have traded grades with me. A housewife who majored in elementary education ten years ago should not expect to compete in such a demanding curriculum. Why did I feel like a loser when merely to pass law school exams is considered winning? I never felt too upset about my losing in bowling or touch football. But mediocrity on a writing task was unbearable. I felt as though I had pulled a handcart through Wyoming in the dead of winter only to find that Zion had moved from Utah to Alaska.

As the summer progressed I decided to learn a lesson from my misery. I plowed through an Evidence handbook to be ahead for fall semester, vowing never again to risk pouring myself into law school. I would impersonate a successful student. I planned to write the next exams exactly the way everyone else wrote, except better, without a single loose bolt.

When I noticed an experimental course called "Women and the Legal Profession," I signed up. I hoped to learn how women could compete with tough-minded men who scored high in mechanical reasoning on aptitude tests. To my surprise, the focus of the class was writing—personal writing about our lives—adjusting to law school, dreams, power, female and male archetypes, and feminism.

My resolution to write nothing but professionally purposeful sentences with accurate gears and absence of emotional superfluity lasted less than a week.

Stimulated by the class, I wrote again, unleashed, with a vigorous creativity born of the child writer of old, the discipline of law school, and new stirrings of one waking to the vastness of a complex world and her choices in it. I joyously sang my toils, labors, fears, and triumphs onto the paper. I wrote family songs. I preserved snatches of melody I heard floating in the law school air signaling that, not only legal robots, but human beings inhabited the hallowed halls. Sometimes the words were harmonious, sometimes flatly off key. Sometimes they were staccato, sometimes pedaled, sometimes off-beat. But always the writing wrote me. The writing taught me that to be a writer, one need not be published, or even read. A writer must simply write.

Home Page