I wear two hats in my professional life – I’m a criminal defense lawyer and a writer. The first, people get. The second often requires explanation. The public defender persona is always fodder for dialogue, maybe because Law and Order, Gone Girl, and The Good Wife makes my attorney life seem awfully thrilling or maybe just because people are fascinated by aberrant behavior. The writer job, on the other hand, is usually a mood-killer around anyone but other writers. “Have I read anything you’ve written?” well-meaning friends ask. “Well,” I say, “if you’re reading literary publications, then you may have.” That’s my hopeful way of nudging my friends to read smaller press gems every now and again.
Sometimes I feel like I'm all alone, writing for the audience of myself, especially when I’m receiving xerox-copied rejection letters on smaller-than-postcard-sized notes with no mark of a human being on them. I asked myself early on whether writing could count as a job. Wouldn’t I be better off lawyering more where I have some direct impact than spending my time writing stories and essays that no one reads? To this, I want to say – boldly and with absolutely no hesitation – that writing is so a job and a necessary one at that. Here are five reasons why writing is an occupation and worth soldiering on with:
1. We Are Not Just Making Stuff Up
Writing is, at its heart, about creation. The greatest short story writers, novelists, poets, and essayists are keen observers of the world around them. They then take those observations, as minute as a facial tick and as large as commentary on race relations, and help us see who we are and what choices we make about life. The method, when executed well, is neither didactic nor preachy. Strong writing is a reflection of reality, a reflection that we can access and apply to our own lives. Writing releases our imagination and opens our empathic waves to new settings, unique characters, and differing perspectives.
2. We Can’t Work 9 to 5
As a lawyer, I bill my time. Every tenth of an hour is billed to the state for services I provide. I began trying to write this way and quickly figured out that “billing” eight to ten hours of writing time doesn’t work in the same way. My time as a writer is not peppered with less thought-intensive tasks, like drives to prisons, client meetings, and writing letters. I think hard about legal issues in cases and briefings, but my public defender job has natural breaks built into that structure. That is not the case with writing. When I sit down to write, I have to maintain laser focus on content and prose in a way that just is not sustainable all day. My creative muscles need time to rest. One hour of writing could be several hours of work in any other job because of the focus it takes to produce good work.
3. The 99% Rejection Rate Challenges Us
It’s something all writers have faced. I have yet to meet a single writer who has not faced blitzkrieg-like rejection in the marketplace from agents, publishers, editors, and even fellow writers. Why bother? For that one percent. If we hang on for it, it will grow to two, three, and then exponentially increase into the double-digits as we start placing more work. Just as comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno said early in their careers: “There is no such thing as a small gig.” Small gigs lead to bigger ones. The trick is to stay dogged and not feel like the rejection is a reflection of our work. But it is an inevitable part of being an artist in any genre. For me, it’s not so different from losing a case. I don’t take it personally because no matter how hard I try, rejection and loss are just part of moving forward in the job.
4. Writing Has Value
It's just not the monetary kind. Let’s face it – writing is not going to make millionaires out of most of us. There could be book deals and movie contracts in someone’s future, but the chances of that happening are slim. With even the best literary publications unable to pay much for pieces, if anything at all, it is difficult to earn a living as a writer. So many writers have a plus-one sort of an arrangement. Mine is writing plus lawyering. Others are writers plus teachers, writers plus doctors, or writers plus parents. Some arrangement has to make writing financially viable unless we are all secretly living off of eternally paying trust funds. That said, I don’t believe that a job has to be paid much in order for it to be valuable. That is certainly true about being a public defender, where we take the most difficult cases and are paid one-seventh of what we would earn as corporate lawyers. In fact, we public defenders and writers work in spite of the fact that we won’t make much money off of it. Why? Because we love it and because we have to. Just because we cannot assign a monetary value to that doesn’t make it any less valuable. The concept of “value” has two meanings for good reason, after all.
5. Someone, Somewhere In The World Will Read What We Have To Say And Change Her Perspective Because Of It
The greatest part of writing for me has been hearing from people when they read my work. Now, I’m not drawing huge crowds like Jhumpa Lahiri. But I don’t need huge crowds. I need just one person out there to feel heard or to feel like they can treat a situation in life differently because of something I’ve written. People say that writers are a solitary, introverted bunch. While there is truth to that, we also write for an audience, and however inward we may seem, it is our job to connect with readers on the page. Our writing can anger someone to action. It can soften a hard heart. It can provoke laughter or passion or love. We have this precious gift to want to write. It is our occupation and preoccupation. Share it, we must'