Habit Forming

The following post comes to us from Professor Nancy Cook

I am typing this with my left hand, although I am not left handed. A recent fall on the ice which has rendered my writing hand dysfunctional for a few months is the reason.

Many times in the past month, I’ve thought back on a story I heard literary Nobel laureate Toni Morrison tell some years ago. She had experienced a similar fall, and she described how, as she was falling, she very consciously moved to protect her hands, the primary tools of her work. This protective move did save her hands, although it meant serious injury to other limbs. Amazingly, during the few seconds it took to fall, Morrison was also consciously and deliberately formulating the narrative of the event, reaching for language, even as she was hiding her hands behind her back.

I confess I made no attempt to save my writing hand as I fell, nor did I have any conscious thought of the story that was unfolding. But I think about the event now, and often, and about Toni Morrison’s instinctual actions. Writing for me now is difficult, slow, sometimes painful. I am aware of the losses that accompany this injury: loss of expression, loss of connection, loss of reflection, loss of insights taking shape in language. And I’m reminded of a phrase from another great wordsmith, Joni Mitchell: You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

What’s “gone,” temporarily, is the ability to fully indulge in a writing habit I knew I had, but the value of which I didn’t truly appreciate. Yet even as I grow frustrated from the inability to indulge, I grow clearer in the belief that observational and reflective writing is a habit to foster. For lawyers, especially.

One reason I make this point here, in our Best Practices blog, is that I can see how non-analytical, creative, experientially reflective writing serves as a counterweight to our training. It balances the inclination to make a point, to reduce observations, stories and insights to talking points or bullet points or power points, to get to the bottom line, or encase thoughts in a “brief,” a memo, an outline, an argument. As lawyers, we may take pride – and rightfully so –in our ability to cut to the quick or clarify complex material in a pithy way. But the literary path is different. In poetry, for example, an epiphanic poem leads us gradually to meaning; it doesn’t blast us or knock us over the head with someone else’s discovery. An “Aha!” moment is not a “Eureka!” moment, and may not be a moment at all; understandings sneak up, come into consciousness quietly. Similarly, story operates at its own pace. It functions to guide someone, over time and pages, to a new place.

We benefit from this kind of reflection and slow-motion analysis.

Lately I have had the good fortune of getting together regularly with two good friends and supportive colleagues. We read each other’s experiments in writing about law, lawyers, the legal system, and social justice. Our literary explorations might not be regarded as tenure-worthy in most institutions, but the value of our work to the profession and our own professional development would be hard to deny. By going through a process of recovery and discovery, eschewing research in favor of interrogation, we find ourselves opening doors to analysis.

And so I choose to use this forum to remind us of the value of those other habits of writing and reflection, and to share information about just two ways experiential teachers can nurture their writing habits. CLEA has resurrected its Creative Writing Competition, and judges are now in the process of reviewing the approximately 50 entries of poetry and prose submitted that reflect on law and justice. A number of the entries will soon be found on the CLEA website and in the newsletter; there will be an opportunity to hear winners read and share other creative works in San Juan in May. In July, CLEA and the Legal Writing Institute will host the 4th Applied Legal Storytelling Conference in London. More information about this much lauded conference can be found on the CLEA and LWI websites.

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