Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins

Exercise 2-2 | Thinking About Our Lives as Stories

Long before one begins the study of law, you are already enmeshed in a story, more accurately a set of linked stories. You have been told stories and become a part of a storied world by way of your family and your neighbors, and the place (or places) where you grew up. Over all the years you have had stories blasted at you from popular culture. Now, in law school, you are in a place where still more stories are being offered to you.

Becoming a lawyer requires you to come to grips with various stories and to see how these stories are going to hold up out in the world.

What stories brought you to law school? What hopes and dreams, what fears, do you find in this story?

Where did you get this story you are now living? James Carse notes that "stories have a way of emerging out of nowhere. Rather than making them up, we seem, instead, to find them; it may even be more accurate to say they find us." [James Carse, "Exploring Your Personal Myth," in Charles Simpkinson & Anne Simpkinson (eds.), Sacred Stories: A Celebration of the Power of Stories to Transform and Heal 223-232, at 224 (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993)]. In what sense is the story that brought you to law school, a story emerging out of nowhere? Or is the story that brought you to law school a story with a long involved history? Is it a story you know how to tell? Is it a story, upon being told, would tell us something important about you?

What kind of person are you in the story you tell about your own life?

Is there a connection between the stories we know, tell, and hear, and the meaning we attribute to our lives? Carse argues that "[w]hen we come to know the stories of our lives, we come to know the meaning of our lives as well; stories shape the way we see ourselves." [Id. at 224]. Do you agree that the meaning you give your life is found in the story of your life? Can you think of any way to get at the various meanings expressed in and through your life without telling a story? How is the law school/legal education/becoming a lawyer story a way to give meaning to life?

[See James R. Elkins, The Quest for Meaning: Narrative Accounts of Legal Education, 38 J. Legal Educ. 577 (1988); James R. Elkins, Rites de Passage: Law Students "Telling Their Lives," 35 J. Legal Educ. 27 (1985)]

Do you see your law school story as a quest story, a heroic journey story? If you do not see yourself on a heroic quest in law school, what kind of myth are you living? If you do not see myth in your life, what does that tell you about the life you are living? Is it possible that your life is driven or dominated by a myth of which you are unaware? If you do not see your life as mythic, or heroic, how do you see yourself? "We are," says Allan Hutchinson, "never not in a story." Can the same claim be made for myth? Do you imagine your life being lived beyond or outside myth?

For additional notes on myth and mythology, see: An Archaeology of Myth|


Telling/Living Our Stories: "When we tell our stories, we want to create a vivid and continuous dream in the listener's heart and mind. As John Gardner says, this dream is the aim of all fiction, all stories. As an analyst [a Jungian psychotherapist], therefore, I look for the language, details, memories, events, and metaphors that make the analysand's story [that is, the story of the person undergoing counseling] precise and vivid. I watch for the distractions, defenses, and narrative flaws that break the continuity of the dream. We all . . . have a unique, compelling, and coherent story to tell. When psychotherapy works, the patient can tell her or his story with narrative competence and create a powerful, vivid, and continuous dream in the analyst's mind." [Excerpted from The Narrative Impulse: Telling Stories, "The Educated Heart," Donald Williams, a work-in-progress]

Williams contends that "we create our lives and the world with the stories we hear and tell. In other words, we maintain our world primarily in conversation--inner dialogues, face to face conversations, and a vast series of conversations we carry on through books, newspapers, films, magazines, television interviews, electronic mail, Compuserve forums, and paintings worth a thousand words."

Williams goes on to point out that, "For most of us, the stories we depend upon work like morality plays (Seek this above all; avoid that at your peril. . .), like manuals for adulthood (Here's how to. . .), or like private prayers to soothe and protect us (Now I lay me down to sleep. . .). Well-ordered fictions can be reliable maps and compasses (You are here, there's a road there. . .) and sometimes cosmologies (In the beginning. . .). We could not make death or birth, love or tragedy, human experiences without stories. We would not recognize, experience, or understand the meaning of loyalty, friendship, sacrifice, wonder, grief, or desire without good stories. We will always need new stories and the retelling of old stories."

Williams talks about stories in the context of therapy. This leads us to ask what it would mean to say of a particular story, that it is therapeutic. The word therapeutic is derived from a Greek root meaning to attend, to treat. What are we treating when we read lawyer stories?

Stories are Told and Heard in the Context of Other Stories: "There are many stories being imagined and enacted, but we can only listen to them and comprehend them within the vernacular contexts of other stories. Our conversations about these narratives are themselves located and scripted in deeper stories that determine their moral force. . . ." [Allan C. Hutchinson, And Law (or Further Adventures of the Jondo), 36 Buff. L. Rev. 285, 286 (1987)]

Tell Me a Story
[Selected web resources]


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