28 January 2010

Finding My Voice

by guest columnist Paul Klein.  Follow him on Twitter.

Despite the myriad warnings from those who’ve braved these shadowed hollows, I decided to go to law school.  It’s a fate I’ve grown to accept, and even enjoy, particularly now that I’m in my final semester.  Prior to joining the undead, I worked as a retail monkey for a national bookstore chain that begins with “B” and ends with “Noble,” which it isn’t.  The job provided a modicum of income while my wife finished school, and even helped us save on our health insurance costs (because we didn’t have any).  Although I despised my job, that hatred fueled my passion for writing.  The way I figured it, if I came home and labored over short stories and novels, I could call myself a writer working at a bookstore to pay the bills.  On the other hand, if I came home and watched television (as so many of my colleagues did), I was just a guy who worked at a bookstore.

So I played that game for a couple of years, and cranked out dozens of short stories.  I even found some success publishing them in various genre and literary journals (one of which we sold at the bookstore, which I made sure to point out to anyone with ears).  I wrote my first novel, which was just awful, so bad I couldn’t even edit past the thirtieth or so page, knowing I didn’t have a bag of tricks big enough to save it.  So I wrote my second novel, which was better, and wound up with some nibbles from agents in New York, but ultimately the story was lacking…well, story.
Soon after, though, I realized that I was on an unsustainable path.  I enjoyed the time my job allowed for writing (not to mention the endless supply of material), but found I wrote less and less often.  The magic of the word still existed, but my near-constant misery began infecting everything I wrote.  I knew that without a change, eventually I’d just be a guy who works at a bookstore.
So, law school.  About three years ago, as my wife and I were deciding which school should push us into cataclysmic debt (the choice was between Case Western in Cleveland and DePaul in Chicago; for reasons I’ll get into later, I am truly grateful we chose Case), I had one of those rare moments of clarity that I expect will stay with me forever.  We had traveled to Chicago to visit DePaul and get a feel for the facilities, the faculty, and whether their debt collectors used baseball bats or knives.  After a morning of “informational sessions,” which in English means “desperate groveling,” the DePaul Law School dean addressed the group of prospective students.  I don’t remember a word of what he said, except for the following line: “We now own your souls.”  Ha, no, just kidding.  What he actually said was: “Most of all, we’re going to teach you to write like lawyers.”  With a bitter expression, I leaned over to my wife and whispered: “I don’t want to write like a lawyer.”
I now look back on that moment with equal parts amusement and horror.  My amusement stems from my naïveté.  At the time I didn’t realize that the skills one learns as a law student, the “write-like-a-lawyer” thing, supplements rather than replaces the skills one has going in.  That works the other way around, too—I have had a far easier trek through legal writing and analysis because of my prior experience as a writer.  My horror stems from a dawning recognition that, for many law students (including almost everyone in the room that day), legal writing is the only writing worth learning.
There’s no boon to productivity like the fear of losing what you once took for granted.  I began writing again.  The words came slowly, at first, but I was delighted to see that they weren’t populated with the stilted, dry, and uninteresting language lawyers typically use when addressing a court.  Yet there was a certain logic and succinctness to my writing that had been missing from my earlier work.  Turned out learning to “write-like-a-lawyer” had its benefits.  By the second year of law school, I was writing more and more often.  I’m not so arrogant as to think everything (or anything) that I wrote was any good, but it sure felt good, and that’s the most important part.  And I guess I still had something to say, too—last summer I took third place in a short story competition with over two hundred entries.
Although it felt good to have my mojo back, something was missing.  I still had a good connection to the gas line of ideas, but I couldn’t seem to spark the pilot.  It gradually dawned on me that I had stumbled along on my own for too long.  Unsure of where to look, dread began to sink in again—what if I’d made a life-altering change, only to lose (again!) what I’d finally recaptured?
And then a funny thing happened.
My neighbor and friend, Tyler Weaver (@tylerweaver)—yes, the very mind behind this fine blog—suggested that we have a beer and toss some ideas around.  Apparently he was going through the same uncertainty as I, and besides, the worst that would happen is we kill a few beers and hang out for a couple of hours.
But something else happened—within five minutes we had a kick-ass idea.  We kept at it, and now, about three months later, we have more than an idea—we have a movie: logline, story arc and all.  We’re still ironing out the details, but this thing is good.  Better yet, we reclaimed what we both felt we’d lost.  As Tyler has noted in a previous post, our collaboration works because: 

1) We respect each other; 

2) We don’t force the issue, and instead allow the ideas to reign supreme; and 

3) We each add something the other cannot.  Also, we like working together, and, although this certainly isn’t a requirement for a successful collaboration, it definitely helps.
Funny how things work out.  I’m damned glad my wife and I decided to stay in Cleveland for law school.  If we hadn’t, this collaboration would never have happened.  There I was looking for a match to spark that pilot, and instead wound up with a truckload of C4.
And I have a feeling that this is just the beginning.

Paul R. Klein is a writer and soon-to-be-lawyer, although he hopes you’ll forgive him the latter.  Paul’s fiction, creative non-fiction and photography have appeared in several literary and genre print- and Internet-based publications.  Currently, he’s collaborating with Tyler Weaver (@tylerweaver) on a film project that’s so intense there’s blood all over the logline card.  Stay tuned by following Paul on Twitter (@kleinpau).


John Mashni said...

Paul, I love reading this. It's fantastic to hear that you're writing, especially after our great experiences in New York. Keep in touch, and I look forward to reading more of your online thoughts, and hopefully your professional endeavors!

The Dark Scribe said...


Thanks for the read! I'll never forget our time in New York - it was a period of enormous personal growth.

Let's catch up soon. I'd love to hear what you've been working on!

Tahee Lee said...

Completely at a loss for words as I'm reading and re-reading this article with immense admiration.

The Dark Scribe said...


Wow, thank you for the kind words! I hope all is well with you. Please stay tuned for continuing updates!

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