Writing


There are only two posts up so far, it appears.  I’ll be keeping an eye out for new posts (and who am I kidding, I am absolutely going to submit.  What rhymes with judicata?)

Check out the Law Poetry blog here.

I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo this month. I’m shooting for 2,000 words per day and 60,000 words total. The (working) title of my baby novel is The Gray Sisters. I’m at 5,125 words on day two.

Just an FYI. I’ll still try and get some posts up, in particular one about a couple of interesting cases just out of the Maryland Court of Appeals.

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I am almost speechless.  Not so speechless that I can’t put this post together, but really, really close to speechless.

Today at Above the Law, lawyer-turned-novelist Allison Leotta gives us an extended, apparently serious post comparing female lawyers to hookers.

No, I’m not kidding.

Ms. Leotta is supposedly a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former assistant United States attorney, in which capacity she supposedly prosecuted sex crimes.  I say supposedly because after reading this post I seriously question her professional credentials.

Oh, I get it, it’s supposed to be amusing, this comparison that gets off the ground by pointing out that the D.C. Madam was a law school dropout.  Lawyers already only care about the causes they’re paid to care about, according to Leotta.  Why not make the big money that comes with being an escort?

Several ridiculous paragraphs follow.  Escorts make more money but have to sleep with people they don’t care about.  Prostitution isn’t good for “gender balance” because there aren’t many jobs for men.  (What?)  Lawyers are less likely to go to jail for their work.  Then some sort of argument about how it’s difficult to enforce covenants not to compete in the sex trade.

This spectacularly tone-deaf piece of ridiculopathy concludes with advice to women who might actually be trying to decide which field to choose.  Yes, it does.  Leotta advises women to stick with law because it’s safer.  Safer!  That is why we should go on practicing, ladies!  Because even though prostitution is “tempting” (her words, not mine), law is safer!  Yay!

I don’t read pulp fiction trash like Leotta’s “book,” Discretion.  I imagine that it may be found on the shelf in the grocery store check-out line, next to the 2013 horoscope guide and the latest Gooseberry Patch cookbook.  I can only wish Leotta had taken the title of her book to heart before she undertook to post this morning.

There are many reasons women practice law.  But if being a lawyer made Leotta feel like a hooker, it’s probably best she has turned her talents to fiction.  I hope she keeps them there, because the rest of us have work to do.

Some time back I assured my readers that they wouldn’t have to read my own work.

I lied.

I mean, technically speaking, you’ve been reading my work on this blog thus far, right?

Someone very talented recently offered to read some of my poems if I posted them.  It really is time I stopped being such a ‘fraidy cat about it.  The last time I submitted was in college, and when I got a slew of rejection slips I stopped.  So consider this my cautious dipping of toe into the water.

And remember one thing, because it will keep you honest: A critic is someone who walks onto the field after the battle and shoots the soldiers who are still alive.  I think Anne Lamott said that.  Clearly she is a very wise woman.

Teaching, Said Mr. S., is Nothing More Than Witchcraft

(For Dad)

And with that he lit a match.
His face was all glowing with spooky smiles, and, well,
There was the light of the bonfire, too.
Term papers. And let me tell you –
There’s no smoke so acrid as loose leaf.
I heard him muttering softly, and though hard to make out,
I caught the words Gatsby and darkling and “rocking horse winner”.
Oh, I said, you must teach . . .?  And then,
His laugh was hideous, until
He returned to the lyric of his spell,
Leaping left and right ‘round the fire,
When – all of a sudden, I shudder to write this –
A little spark caught the cuff of one polyester’d pant leg,
Reducing the wizard, in the blink of an eye,
To a yelping – yawping? – pup.
And he ran off, I suppose,
To cool his skin in the snow.
Whose woods these are I think I know,
But his house is in the village.
 
 
 
Metronome
 
 
In the year since then I’ve sold the piano.
If you had seen them haul the weight
Down two floors, where it perched above the sidewalk,
A queer black bird,
Suspended on wire.

I thought when you left I wouldn’t mind too much.
I thought I would find a new means
Of occupying my time. Instead of your bookshelf,
A rubber tree plant. I don’t miss the piano.

I don’t mind the space. A throw rug does wonders
Though I still step around the place where the bench used to be.
The girl downstairs made a card for your birthday
And she skips the thirteenth step,

Everytime,
Like you taught her.

The color I painted the kitchen would not agree with you.
I made a patch for the spot on the sofa.
You wouldn’t know this, you left so much behind.
Things I can’t change or paint or sell.
The place you touched your hand to when
Ginsburg died.
The bare spot on the floor that you paced into the wood,
Waiting to hear. 

 
 
 
 
 
On Coleridge

When the divine wind blows, there’s no stopping
Where it goes. So says the man in his armchair scheming,
Who puts pen to paper despite the interruption
Of his dreaming by a person on inconvenient business and with most
Inconvenient timing. Still, the Fragment makes it way onto the page,
Then pages, books, anthologies, bibliographies, biographies
Until it belongs to us entire (and we call this man a sage).
The same wind, what’s more,
Sunk the same Emperor’s fleet five centuries before,
On churning water. The men who stood upon the decks
Of ships that wrecked
Were unprepared to fight this sort of war
And died within a mile of the shore,
While the intended casualties of the siege looked on, and blessed
The wind. Kubla Khan, it seems, in his haste
To lay his enemies to waste
Launched flat-hulled river boats upon a sea
Made treacherous by an inconvenient wind.
It spelled the end of Khan’s excursions, sent him fleeing
To the safety of his dome, where he learned
To bless his home and curse the wind.

Not we, though, in our chairs, said he
Who launched a hundred ships into the wind.
We emperors of oceans making boats both frail
And fit. We loosen moorings, pray for wind to hale
These ships, these paper boats adrift
On endless seas.

 
 

So, the inevitable St. Patrick’s Day post.

I celebrate St. Patty’s Day because people would look at me funny if I paraded around in a kilt on St. Andrew’s Day with a plate of haggis. 

The legend of St. Patrick is one of those big symbolic myths.  Patrick, so the story goes, was born in Britain, kidnapped by raiders, and taken to Ireland where he was held as a slave.  Eventually he was freed and returned to Britain.  He returned some time later as a missionary and began converting everybody.  Then he drove the snakes off the island.

There is a school of thought that the “snakes” in the story symbolize the Goddess of the ancient Celtic religions.  If you’ve read The Red Tent, The Mists of Avalon, or any of the many other feminist-chick-lit books out there, you’re familiar with this general theme.  (I shouldn’t lump Mists in with that group, really.  It’s a damn good book.) 

Robert Graves’ White Goddess, however, is the scholarly source for most of these.   The book has its critics: historians who argue inaccuracies; Christians who consider it blasphemous; neo-pagans who call it too Judeo-Christian.  Modern experts point out that there was no “Triple Goddess” (maiden-mother-crone) in Celtic mythology.  Feminists call it sexist because, in Graves’ view, women may not be poets, only “muses.”

I think these critics are missing the point.  White Goddess is more a history of the bardic tradition, and in writing the book Graves inherited, in my opinion anyway, the torch previously held by Yeats, Eliot, and Auden, respectively.

Lawyers share a common heritage with the Celtic bards.  In ancient Ireland, a class of poets known as fili served as religious leaders, lawgivers and judges for the community.  Eventually they developed “niche practices”, with brehons as lawyers/judges, druids as priests, and the fili as poets.  These poets, or bards, held a vital position in Celtic society.  They were the keepers of cultural heritage and collective wisdom. 

This tradition declined with the influx of Christianity and eventually gave way to the chivalric romances that we associate with Olde England: Arthur, Tristan and Isolde, Sir Gawain. 

The oral histories of the fili-bards likely contributed to what is quite possibly Ireland’s greatest gift to the world (besides the Jameson): the Book of Kells. 

Although – some believe the manuscript was actually created in Scotland.  But let’s not spill any Laphroaig over it. 

Erin go bragh!

Ablene Cooper, a sixty year old African American woman in Jackson, Mississipi, has filed suit against Kathryn Stockett, author of the bestseller, The Help.   I haven’t read it.  Admittedly there are certain books that feel too Oprah Book Club-y to me and “The Help” has all the hallmarks of being that kind of book.  This may mean that I am a Franzen-style snob.  Don’t care.

But let me say this.  I have started three or four novels since my twenties and every single one of them suffers from the same flaw: I can’t get myself out of the story.  Or, if not me, then someone interesting I know and wish to write about.  I get maybe five chapters in and can’t keep going.  The whole thing falls apart because I’m trying too hard, consciously or not, to model a fictional person after a real person or to tell a real story in a fictional guise. 

I suspect this is the novelist’s greatest sin, save cliches and stories that turn out to be dream sequences.  It’s true that real life informs our writing.  Look at Hemingway.  He lived and fought in Spain and wrote The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls.  But he knew how to separate himself, and his life, from the story.  The same goes for Salman Rushdie, Pat Conroy, Gore Vidal, and any number of former lawyers who churn out legal thrillers like billable hours.  They start with the basis, then move on.

Then there is the thinly veiled autobiographical/biographical novel, like Peyton Place or Citizen Kane.  Part of the appeal of books like this, though, is the frisson of excitement that comes from peeking into someone else’s (real) life.  The stories succeed exactly because the characters are recognizable.  But this comes with a price.

Authors need to understand that the publisher’s disclaimer on the frontispiece of the book – “This is a work of fiction, any resemblance to persons or places, blah, blah, blah “- is not a perfect hedge against recrimination.  Nor is Michael Crichton’s small penis rule.  The legal actions available to claimants vary from state to state and nation to nation, but typically they take the form of libel/defamation, invasion of privacy, “false light” and so on.  Most of these torts are intentional, meaning that – again, depending on the relevant law – punitive damages may be available.  Punitive damages may or may not be covered under your or your publisher’s insurance policy, so your personal assets may be on the line to satisfy a judgment, if there is one.  And in the United Kingdom, where libel suits are really bad news, you may also have to pay the claimant’s attorney’s fees. 

I think that when people write a fictional character that very closely resembles a real one, it’s because they want to stick the knife in and twist it.  So if you feel yourself doing that, stop.  Fold.  Re-deal.  Let’s say, hypothetically, that I know someone named Hal.  And I write a book, and include a character named “Hal,” a fat, socialist derelict on welfare who smokes pot, wears a dirty Che t-shirt and listens to Bob Marley.  So long as Hal doesn’t closely resemble that character in real life, the use of his name should not trigger liability.  And I still get to enjoy my delicious secret, no less wonderful for not being actionable. 

Call.

In the two pieces he composed shortly thereafter, he struggled to answer the question he had indirectly posed in both “September 1, 1939” and “Musee des Beaux Arts”:  Is there a law that cannot be ignored, that applies under all circumstances, and that applies to all people?  Is there a law which does not turn away from human suffering?

The first of these two poems was “Law Like Love.”  It opens with seven stanzas worth of philosophical taxonomy: law, according to the gardeners, is the sun, an ancient, immutable, inscrutable thing.  According to the old, the law is collected wisdom; according to the young, it is sensation.  Auden spared not clergymen:

 Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

 

Nor, amusingly, judges:

Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I’ve told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

 

Scholars, he wrote, argue that law is purely relative, no more than the crimes designated at any given time or place, to be adopted and discarded like “the clothes men wear/Anytime, anywhere.”  Or it is the voice of the politically powerful – the “crowd,” a Kierkegaardian concept – superimposed against the voice of the individual in need of protection from the excesses of power:

And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.
 

Auden ultimately rejected each of these approaches, but he hesitated to say what law is.  Instead, he suggested only what law is like: It is like love.  The comparison seems mawkish at first, but he quickly disabuses us of our sentimentality:

Like love we don’t know where or why,
Like love we can’t compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep.

 

Man-made law, like love, often fails us.  It seems arbitrary.  It reduces us to tears.  And it is seldom kept, or at least it must have appeared that way to the Europeans who stood between Hitler and his ascendancy to total power.  In the moment of time within which “Law Like Love” was composed, the laws of men were absolutely worthless.  None of the conventions of Versailles, none of the limits imposed by the nations opposed to Hitler’s aggression has prevented the war.  And though Auden could not have known it at the time, the law would and could do nothing to prevent the establishment of Auschwitz or the other Nazi factories of death.

The poem leaves us stranded on the edge of a very troubling place.  If the law is such a fickle thing, what do we gain by submitting ourselves to it?  If the law can do nothing to protect the powerless – and in truth it cannot, since ultimately law is determined by those with sufficiently concentrated power – what is its value?

The answer, for Auden, lay in “The Hidden Law,” written as a sort of postscript to “Law Like Love.”

The Hidden Law does not deny
Our laws of probability,
But takes the atom and the star
And human beings as they are,
And answers nothing when we lie.
 
It is the only reason why
No government can codify,
And verbal definitions mar
        The Hidden Law.
Its utter patience will not try
To stop us if we want to die:
When we escape It in a car,
When we forget It in a bar,
These are the ways we’re punished by
        The Hidden Law.

 

The “hidden” law is natural law, a concept Auden had been struggling with for some time.  Although he had been an atheist, by the nineteen thirties Auden was a man of deep religious faith who had begun reading Soren Kierkegaard.  Kierkegaard drew a distinction between human love and divine love, and similarly between human law and divine law.  Human law, like human love, is fallible.  Natural law is not.  Ultimately, Auden believed, the Fascists would not escape it.

Auden’s prediction proved correct, but at enormous cost.  After the war, he was hired by the United States Strategic Bombing Surveys Morale Division to tour Germany and interview civilians there.  The Allies wanted to know whether prolonged bombing had hastened Germany’s surrender.  He said little about the experience, but years later he wrote in “Memorial for the City”:

The steady eyes of the crow and the camera’s candid eye
See as honestly as they know how, but they lie.
The crime of life is not time.  Even now, in this night
Among the ruins of the Post-Vergilian City
Where our past is a chaos of graves and the barbed-wire stretches ahead
Into our future till it is lost to sight,
Our grief is not Greek: As we bury our dead
We know without knowing there is reason for what we bear,
That our hurt is not a desertion, that we are to pity
Neither ourselves nor our city:
Whoever the searchlights catch, whatever the loudspeakers blare,
We are not to despair.
 

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