As a criminal defense attorney and a writer, I have found unexpected ways to use my trial experience in the writing process. When I first started writing creative pieces, I assumed – quite wrongly – that my eight years of legal practice wouldn’t be helpful in my writing endeavors. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Writers encounter many of the same struggles that lawyers do.
One of those struggles is the creation of an identity. Layers must connect with a jury; writers must connect with readers. To do that, lawyers and writers both have to create an identity that is relatable, genuine, and honest. A jury will see straight through a lawyer delivering a closing argument that is not his or her own; just as a reader will see through a writer who is trying to write like someone else. It’s disingenuous.
When I was in the public defender’s office, I worked for probably the best defense attorney in the State of Iowa. I don’t say that lightly – he quite honestly is an outstanding attorney. He won a murder trial when the defendant was caught cutting all identifying marks off the deceased person’s body – including tattoos and fingers. That takes some real skill. Juries do not take homicide or body dismemberment lightly.
Because my previous boss is an incredible trial attorney, I made the mistake (as a young attorney) of fashioning everything I did around what he did. His closing arguments are snarky, and his cross-examinations aggressive. So that’s what I did. He pounds the table when angry, and hurls thinly veiled accusations at law enforcement and prosecutors. So, that’s what I did. Unfortunately, I found out that it wasn’t working for me.
Why? Because I’m not him. Mimicking him was disingenuous, fake, forced, and the completely wrong way for me to approach cases. We aren’t the same people, my former boss and I, and try as I might, I’m never going to be him. For starters, I’m a 32-year-old, 5’4,” even-tempered attorney with blonde hair; he’s a middle-aged, suspender-wearing, famously hot-tempered, white, male. Believe it or not, people don’t treat young female attorneys and middle-aged, white, male attorneys in the same way. Namely, when he’s snarky, people chuckle and agree. When I’m snarky, I’m a word that rhymes with witch but starts with a “b.”
I’m not to saying that I didn’t learn from him. I learned a great deal from my former boss and mentor. I learned how to craft closing arguments – how to tell my client’s story compellingly. What I had to realize was that I could take his advice, but I had to use it in my own way. So instead of being snarky and funny – which I am not, I use his outline for closing arguments and add my own spin. I present the jury with myself, rather than pretending to be him, but I also present my closing arguments using his structure.
How does this relate to writing? Well, it’s simple. Writers write because they fell in love with the written language – someone else’s work. It’s easy to read Stephen King or Markus Zusak and try to write exactly like them. But it doesn’t work that way. Yes, they are experts. Yes, they write compelling stories. But you aren’t them. You can never be them, so stop trying.
It’s okay to use a beloved writer’s work as a learning tool. It’s a great idea to study that work and find out what it is that draws the reader in. It’s an even better idea to use it as a tool in creating the framework of your own project. But don’t be them. It’s disingenuous, and your reader will see through the façade.
Besides, there already is a Stephen King; the world doesn’t need two of him. What the world needs is a new, great writer that may draw inspiration from Stephen King’s work, but who’s work has its own identity. You have an identity as a person – so find your identity as a writer. You be you; let them be them.