This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece by Bri Lee.
I started working as a Judge’s Associate in January this year and I knew it was affecting my writing from the very beginning. Mainly because it was giving me so much to write about. Most of my time is spent in criminal proceedings - trials and sentences - and as sure as conflict is at the heart of stories, conflict is the lifeblood of the Courts. Four working days out of five I see disadvantaged people who’ve done awful things to hurt each other being prosecuted and defended by distinctly not disadvantaged people. Counsel use words to fight for liberty or incarceration. They orate their versions of stories with heroes and villains more binary than Batman. Witnesses are interrogated for the “truth” and spittle flies from the Bench when they refuse to give “simple, yes or no!” answers. There’s a lot on the line. Each hour that ticks past in a trial is hundreds of dollars of state money, too. Sometimes it’s a struggle to remember that we’re all here, just inching our way, slowly and awkwardly, toward a just world.
This isn’t a hugely original train of thought. The legal profession boasts a long history of prolific authors and philosophical minds. Granted, for most of human history that was because rich white men who had access to a legal education were also the (only) ones who had access to (and were celebrated by) the literary communities of the western world. More recently, kids in Australia who do well in English Extension graduate high school with good grades that they don’t wanna “waste” so their parents get big ‘ol DOLLA SIGNS $$$ bling!bling!bling! ringing up in front of their eyes like a Looney Tunes cartoon and boom! 17 year-olds enjoy a warm summer then start undergrad law.
That wasn’t quite the case for me. I started in Journalism/Arts, panicked about how awful the course was at the end of first year, and knee-jerk transferred across to Law/Arts. I can’t pretend the facade didn’t hook me. It’s a fancy world full of robes and mahogany (hello, Harry Potter!) where everybody watches the news and has an opinion about it. More people in law school read the newspaper than in journo school, I’ll tell you that much. Law students are also delightfully fancy. (I need to clarify that the students themselves are not rich - their parents are.) This proved addictive for my masochistic inferiority complex. I spent my law degree panicking, trying to putty-up the colossal chip on my shoulder - losing myself in the pursuit of a definition of success I forgot I never subscribed to.
I didn’t start taking my writing seriously until the end of my law degree in December 2014 - when I already had my dream graduate job lined up for the following year. It just didn’t feel like an option for me until I proved to everyone that I could be wondrously boring lawyer-rich if I wanted. At the wise old age of 23, I can look back on my daft, flailing youth and realise I also learnt Mandarin and got temporarily super-skinny for the same idiotic (insecure) reasons. Now I don’t need to prove a damn thing and I can spend the rest of my life writing! (Perhaps awfully!)
To return to my actual writing practice though, I can say for sure that I didn’t realise the precise nature or extent of the effect the law was having on my writing until I was invited to read at the NYWF “Flirtations with the Law” event last month. Most of the cool young writers read pieces about times they’d experimented with drugs or nicked stuff, but a monologue of confused vitriol just tumbled out of me, not unlike vomit. I’m glad people laughed (because it was pretty bitter) and since then I’ve been spewing out way more words of the non-fiction draft I started half way through the year. That reading at NYWF made me realise that there’s something here in my “professional” life not only worth exploring, but things that couldn’t not be explored.
For my own wellbeing, yes, but also because all these tricksy legal issues make for damn good stories. Sometimes you tell stories to help you digest your experience. Sometimes you can’t digest them. Sometimes it’s like when you spew right after you’ve eaten and you identify parts of what you ate for dinner. That’s sort of what working in the law and writing about it is for me right now – I grimace as I finger through the filthy details, trying to stomach the idea of right and wrong, lawful and not; to understand what happened to cause such a mess in people. Trying to understand people. Trying to understand myself.
This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece, part of a series where writers reflect on the strange, wonderful or just plain-old terrifying things they've done to keep the lights on. To read more like this, click here:
Bri Lee is a Brisbane-based writer and the founder of Hot Chicks with Big Brains. She also works in photography, videography, and editing, and her work has appeared in Scum, Voiceworks, Acclaim, and Spook.