Thursday, February 12, 2009

Do these things a writer make?

I keep wondering: at what point can I actually call myself a writer? Now that I've quit the practice of law, how do I respond when people ask the inevitable question: "So, what do you do?"

Believe me, I have tried to say the words, “I am a writer” out loud, but I can’t seem to keep a straight face, or the words come out all wobbly. Sometimes the words are even accompanied by a nervous, apologetic laughter. Who can really blame me? After having the pragmatically esteemed, yet safe (Look, I have the J.D. and the bar license to back it up!) title of attorney to throw around with comfortable ease, saying that I’m a writer just sounds boldly presumptuous. I haven’t published any novels or worked on the staff of any reputable publications. I don’t have a weekly column a la Carrie Bradshaw or even an advice column like Dear Abbey. So, what is a girl to say in response to the go-to cocktail party conversation starter: “What do you do?”

Clearly, the main source of my hesitation to call myself a writer is my lack of qualifications to back it up. "You’re a writer, huh? Ok, prove it." Cornered by someone in this manner, how would I respond? Would I point to my voluminous collection of adolescent diaries and journals, my undergraduate English papers, my old law school newspaper articles, and my witty banter with my friends on Facebook? Do those things a writer make? But, as I ponder this conundrum, I can’t help but wonder: does some of this “professional title” anxiety stem from the fact that a small part of me still identifies myself as an attorney?

This question was clearly answered when I went to the eye doctor recently. As I was filling out the medical forms, I came to the routine question: What is your occupation? I paused. A routine medical questionnaire that I had answered with ease throughout my adult life had me stumped. What should I write? Here were the choices that I saw flashing before me:

1. "unemployed"- No, that sounds like I didn't have any say in the manner when I quit my job. I found it a bit dishonest to lump myself with the legions of people who have recently fallen victim to this country's economic downturn.

2. "housewife" – As brainwashed as I have been by my liberal education, I could never identify with this moniker. In my head, the word “housewife” conjures up images of a Martha Stewart wannabe whose main passions in life are cooking, cleaning, and making those hideous Christmas sweaters. Now, don’t get me wrong. I do plenty of cooking and cleaning and am not ashamed to say that I enjoy taking care of my husband. It is only the negative connotation of the title of “housewife” that I am taking issue with. Oh, and it would be an entirely different story if I had children. Without any spawn to take care of, to identify myself as a housewife by choice seems a bit tragic.

3. "writer, or even aspiring writer"- Seems a little pathetic. I wanted to get my eyes checked, not make the receptionist feel sorry for me and my delusional romantic notions of my artistic grandeur.

So, if none of these choices would do, what did I ultimately end up writing down? Yes, the ol' reliable professional identity that will always be there for me to fallback on: “attorney.” It just felt like the safest thing to write at the time. I still do (and always will) have that “J.D” beside my name after all(don’t worry, I never actually write that after my name. But it comforts me that I could if I wanted to). And when the friendly doctor asked me what kind of law I practiced as he was dilating my pupils, I simply responded that in actuality, I had retired from the practice of law in May and was pursuing a new career path. There, that sounded respectable enough, didn't it?

What to make of all this? Well, it seems that although I am excited about embarking on a new career path, I have not completely disowned my old one. And you know what? That's Ok. I don't need to completely disassociate myself from the identity that I have grown so comfortable with these past five years in order to build a new one. That cutting of the umbilical cord may come with time, or may never come at all. I am learning to be proud of all the time, energy, and hard work I invested as a law student and an attorney. I am proud to have called myself an attorney, and, apparently, will be calling myself one for some time.

It seems only appropriate that after divulging this mini "identity crisis," I should announce that I have received my first paying job as a writer! The partner at my old law firm has hired me to write content for the law firm website. I will be writing various articles to educate the public about the firm and legal issues in general. And to think, without my legal past, I would never have encountered this opportunity. Maybe my stint as an attorney was just what I needed to open some creative doors for me.

Oh, and by the way, I've decided that my hodgepodge collection of random works DO indeed a writer make. And while I still can't help but giggle a bit when I describe myself as a writer, it's not from apologetic awkwardness, but sheer glee.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Don't Cry for Me Cyberspace Denizens!

In May of 2008, I found myself in an odd, and some may say enviable, position. At the age of thirty-one, I had the luxury to retire from the only profession that I had ever known: the practice of law. I suddenly found myself heavily burdened with the freedom to do absolutely whatever I wanted.

Yes, I know, you can hardly hold back your tears of sympathy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I fully realized how blessed I was to find myself in this fortuitous position. But, while it’s true that at times I could hardly contain my excitement at the prospect of never again having to argue another case to an indifferent jury, or assuage the fiery wrath of angry clients, I also found my new circumstances disturbingly intimidating. Blessed with a husband who supported my decision to quit the practice of law, and suddenly in possession of an abundance of free hours in a day, I no longer had any excuse not to be living my ideal life. Instead of immediately charging forward and embracing the fact that a stale legal job no longer held me back from pursuing my passions and making my life as meaningful as possible, I froze in fear. I found myself deeply intimidated by this seemingly boundless gift of freedom and opportunity.

Apparently, my reaction to this new set of circumstances is not that atypical for people of my generation. In an article in the Financial Times, Thomas Barlow explores the culture of discontent that arises not from the frustration caused by lack of opportunity, but from an excess of possibilities. He describes the unique problem of one young American Rhodes Scholar:

“She already had two degrees from top US universities, had worked as a lawyer and as a social worker in the US, and somewhere along the way had acquired a black belt in kung fu. Now, however, her course at Oxford was coming to an end and she was thoroughly angst-ridden about what to do next. Her problem was no ordinary one. She couldn't decide whether she should make a lot of money as a corporate lawyer/management consultant, devote herself to charity work helping battered wives in disadvantaged communities, or go to Hollywood to work as a stunt double in kung fu films. What most struck my friend was not the disparity of this woman's choices, but the earnestness and bad grace with which she ruminated on them. It was almost as though she begrudged her own talents, opportunities and freedom - as though the world had treated her unkindly by forcing her to make such a hard choice.”

Reading this article, I can see why Barlow seems to only harbor disdain for this Rhodes Scholar and others like her who “suffer” from the blight of having too many opportunities. And while a part of me feels that this discontent seems ungrateful and awfully self-indulgent, I can also understand the mindset of this young American woman. While my achievements in no way compare to this Rhodes Scholar/kung fu master/social worker, I can still relate to her angst at having too many doors open and the pressure involved in making touch choices.

Although it’s hard to admit, I think that most of us find some comfort in having limited choices or not having a choice at all. Instead of feeling like they have boundless opportunity, most people feel that life makes the choices for them based on financial and other practical constraints. While it may sound counter intuitive, not having the freedom to make choices can often lift a heavy burden off your shoulders. If you are shackled to an unfulfilled job, marriage, or life circumstance because of practical responsibilities, then you don’t have to confront tough questions such as asking yourself: "is this the best life I could be living?" You don’t have the luxury to soul-search about your purpose in life. There is some comfort in not being able to quit an unsatisfying job because you have mouths to feed, bills to pay and expectations to fulfill.

So, in May 2008, I suddenly found myself with no expectations to fulfill and no practical constraints holding me back. Stripped of all excuses, I no longer could justify not living the most fulfilling life possible. I can tell you in all honesty, that the last eight months have been a journey of both frustrations and achievements. Early on, I found it challenging to feel significant without a job (especially a practical, esteemed-in-the-eyes-of-society job, ie: attorney!) to define me, but gradually, I am enjoying the freedom of knowing that my worth lies in the person that I am and not the professional title I bear.

So now, instead of feeling intimidated when confronted with all the free hours in my days, I am beginning to see the bounty of opportunities before me. Most importantly, I am learning how to be kind to myself; not judging myself too harshly for not doing more, being more. Oh, and in spite of whatever self-indulgent angst-ridden affliction I may occasionally suffer from, not a day goes by when I am not grateful for the freedom of choosing my own destiny.

“The notion that one can do anything is clearly liberating. But life without constraints has also proved a recipe for endless searching, endless questioning of aspirations. It has made this generation obsessed with self-development and determined, for as long as possible, to minimize personal commitments in order to maximize the options open to them. One might see this as a sign of extended adolescence. Eventually, they will be forced to realize that living is as much about closing possibilities as it is about creating them.”

--Thomas Barlow, Financial Times

Monday, February 2, 2009

Burn Hello Kitty, Burn!

Welcome to my first self-indulgent post as a blogger and excuse me while I bask in the glory of your undivided attention.

“To be a useful person has always seemed to me something particularly horrible,”

- Baudelaire

It’s eerie how we can seal our fate at such a young age. I am tempted to blame my tragic, albeit short-lived, legal destiny on one run-on sentence from a deceptively innocuous entry in my Hello Kitty diary:

“I guess I should be a lawyer or writer cuz I always have to write what I’m feeling or I don’t feel whole and I like to argue my point of view.”

- October 28, 1990

I find it both terribly romantic and ridiculously unfair to blame my childhood self for spending eight years of my life pursuing a field of study that never could satisfy me. At the age of fourteen, I clearly had no understanding of what the practice of law entailed. I simply knew that I was opinionated and liked to convince people to believe what I believed. Unfortunately for me, with one stroke of a pen (and with that smug feline Hello Kitty looking on in approval) I had planted the seed that would ultimately germinate into a misguided belief that I could indulge my passion for writing through the practice of law.

What started off as a mere hunch that law may be my most suited career path, slowly evolved into a strong conviction. In my high school English classes, I embraced the majority of what I read, but found particularly attractive the stories with characters who fought for what they believed in. I was inspired by the determined ingenuity of Shakespeare’s Portia. I revered Lee’s Atticus Finch for his goodness and his dogged pursuit of justice in the face of evil. The strong feelings these characters stirred up in me led me to believe that I wanted to become an attorney. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it wasn’t so much the substantive issue of the law that enthralled me, but the carefully crafted words in which these stories were delivered. (Of course, the fight against injustice still appeals to me now as it did then. But I have been sobered by the realization that the vast majority of lawyers advocate clients and issues that are MUCH less romantic).

During my three years of law school, I felt, at best, indifferent, at worst, miserable. Of all my classes, the one I dreaded the most was legal research and writing. I hated all the rules and parameters that were placed on my writing. My happiest moments in law school came from writing for the school newsletter, Legalese. It felt so comfortably familiar and so honest writing about topics that had not been forced down my throat by a legal research and writing professor.

For five long years after I graduated from law school, I practiced law at both government agencies and with private firms. The years had not changed my stance and my unhappiness with my chosen profession. I tried to comfort myself by telling myself I had chosen a practical profession, that my skills would be useful to people. But is that what I wanted for myself? To be useful? Or did I want to alter the course of my destiny and allow my talents and interests to guide me this time around?

Yes, if I had poked a bit more at my youthful conclusion that my love of writing and speaking my mind meant that I should be a lawyer, I would have discovered that it was the art and poetry of the words themselves that lured me. I adored the art of how an idea or thought could be communicated much more than the actual substance of the communication. Even a closer reading of my simple, nonchalant diary entry would have given me insight as to how I truly felt. At the age of fourteen, I had clearly differentiated between my fancy for arguing and my need to write. From a young age, I was conscious of the fact that the simple act of writing down my thoughts made me feel "whole". No matter how sad I felt, no matter what evil things I had done, and no matter how frustratingly mundane the world appeared to be, channeling those feelings into words on paper somehow always gave me such a strong sense of peace.

So, lest I bore you, that is it for now. But don't worry, if you know me (and chances are you do if you are reading this blog out of the gazillion other blogs out there), you know that there is a happy ending to this much abbreviated story. I sit here at the computer, with my cup of tea, free from the practice of any useful or practical profession. And I have never been happier.

“Everyone in his heart of hearts agrees with Baudelaire: ‘To be a useful person has always seemed to me something particularly horrible,’ for, subjectively, to be useful means to be doing not what one wants to do, but what someone else insists on one’s doing.”

- WH Auden

Hellish Kitty

Hellish Kitty
My beloved childhood diary