Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins

Law Student Accounts of Introspective Writing

  [The following excerpts are from law student journals written in an "Introduction to Law" course at the College of Law, West Virginia University in the late 1970s]


In each word, each thought, each painful expression in the writings there is a part of me. At first I was frightened, frightened over the new discovery each word brought, as I dug into the inner self. It was like an expedition. I was digging for and uncovering something that had been lost while I was in law school--my inner self.

At times the writing made my personal life more difficult. It is hard to uncover bitterness, the bitterness that comes from childhood, from the way I live now, from legal education. The bitterness frightened and shamed me. At times I wondered whether it was really me that was doing the writing. And I was afraid of letting anyone see the bitterness. As I wrote, I began to understand that my feelings were normal and were shared by other women. I was not alone. The self-exploration was hard but it got me through a difficult time. My writing expresses my beliefs, my fears, my accomplishments, and my failures. Most of all, it expresses the confusion I have felt trying to deal with becoming a female lawyer. My insecurities and desire for power seem to be reflected throughout my writings. However, I see myself growing and taking shape within the writings. I see acceptance and understanding. The story I am telling is one of growth. By being honest in my work, I was able to rediscover myself, my goals, and what I truly sought by coming to law school. Whether I'll ever reach those goals is another question. Now I have more strength and understanding.


My writing took me further and deeper than I thought understanding could go. My writing was part of an artistic process, not unlike working with canvas or a poet creating a poem. My writing tells a story in three acts. In act one, I explore the reasons for coming to law school and try to remember how my background irrelevant to being a law student. In act two, I vent my frustration with law school and society in general, noting that law school is just a product of culture and society. In act three, I discover the connection between my creative side and the legal work that I have set out to do. By writing, I have become a more complete and united person. I have a greater understanding and appreciation of myself as a person with both "masculine" and "feminine" values. As I explored my life before law school, I began to notice how my life seemed to be made up of separate strands of experience, of numerous stories. The different stories were not always harmonious. It was difficult to reconcile the story of my old life and the life I now live. Working with these differences and conflict provided insights that illuminated what I wanted to be and who it is that I am. In my early writing there are a lot of labels: housewife, law student, lawyer, and artist. These labels reflect my fragmented vision of life. The distinctiveness of the labels made it hard to see myself or others as a cohesive, "human" being. It is now clear that I cannot be what I thought a lawyer should be without ridding myself of some qualities that I esteem and admire. I know I can't not be a lawyer. I have invested too much time and energy in acquiring lawyering skills. I feel like I have left home and will find it hard to find my way back. The frustration from feeling set adrift by the men in law school and in society has been debilitating. It is like reading Marilyn French's The Women's Room while living with a psychologically abusing husband. The two can't be reconciled. And yet, the frustration is a necessary stage of development for a woman law student. It prepares her for what she is up against now and will face in the future. It reveals the possibilities for change and for conformity. There is a recurring theme in my writing--that all things highly esteemed by our culture are "masculine," which means that the "feminine" is negative and destructive and thus must forever be so in my work and thoughts. I want power because I want to succeed, but "success" is described now only in masculine terms. I don't want to succeed unless "success" incorporates feminine values as well as masculine. It is hard to figure out what a woman like me (looking for feminine values) is doing in an all-male institution like law school. In writing, I became more creative, more like what I was before I came to law school. I wrote a fairy tale and a poem. I began to like myself and to realize that I had intelligence and technical skills as well as imagination and artistic skills. Things began to come together.


People suspend their values and beliefs in law school. They assume that it will be possible to magically recover those values upon graduation. I find myself doing the same thing. I suspended thinking about the crippling effect that doubt has upon my decisions. The idea is that it will be better once I start working. In my writing, I hear the voice of a woman distancing herself from her own experience. At times I am objective and detached, reciting unrelated bits and pieces of my life. I sound as if I am proud of the trauma and turmoil that I have experienced. There is something missing. There is much that I did not tell. I don't seem to have given any psychological significance to the story that I've been telling. There isn't the kind of introspection that leads to a meaningful understanding of myself.


When I read my work, I feel like I am outside myself, like someone looking in the window of the home of an old friend. As I wrote each week, it was as if I were writing a letter, or entries in a journal, writing often for the sake of writing, never thinking of the possible pattern that might emerge. I thought I would be embarrassed to read the work again, as if forced to face an image I disliked in the mirror. But I'm not embarrassed. The pieces tell a story. They reflect what is happening in my life, what happened in law school, what is happening to me now.

I began by trying to work through my feelings of powerlessness, in law school and in the male world of work. As I wrote, I saw how coming to law school was a way to realize the power to change my life. I was on the outside, looking in. And then I found myself in law school, doing the same work as everyone else, but feeling that I did not belong. I wasn't aggressive enough. I was too sensitive, too hesitant. I began to question myself. I wasn't sure I would ever be on equal footing with my law school peers.

My first writings were an exploration of how I was different from others. The difference grew out of conflicting messages that I got from my parents. My father expected excellence, yet gave little praise. My mother was content with her own life and activities, and seemed to have no yearning for power. I came to both yearn for and fear power. I have tried to tie these feelings of alienation and questions about power to my experience in law school. Even as I did the writing and prepared to leave law school, there was a part of me that was hesitant. I believed that I had failed to measure up. I was too soft, too easy, and had tried to ignore those feelings. Then I began to face my own feelings of failure. I tried to discover what power meant to me. There was confusion. I recognized more than one type of power, the power of inner strength and the outer power that dominates. I knew that I had some strengths, yet I wasn't sure they would be useful. They did not seem to be strengths tied to the power I saw that others had. In all my writing, I tried to explore ways in which I could be me. Then as I began to read fairy tales and the stories of women in Greek mythology, my focus began to change. I started to think about women and how I stood in relation to my own sense of womanhood. Instead of looking at myself as a law student and future lawyer, I began to look at myself as a woman.

At first, the change in perspective was subtle. I was seeing myself as a woman on the margin of the male world. Seeing myself this way, I realized the fears I had at the prospect of being both woman and lawyer. I wasn't sure I could handle it. Even as I experienced the fear, I explored the idea of being a woman. I admitted my attraction to the hearth, but also the simultaneous distrust of the Cinderella complex. At times, I ran to the hearth, to the warm spot by the fire. It seemed like I was running away from the world. I was actually re-discovering my own femininity. My focus shifted from the world to me--as woman, child, person. I no longer tried to analyze how I stood in relation to others, my relation to success as a lawyer. I was coming home. I was beginning to realize that I am happy as a woman. I began to reject self-degradation. My happiness no longer meant weakness and evasion of responsibility. And then I wavered. I could feel the warmth of my acceptance of femininity, but had to face the world. I was implicitly measuring my readiness to accept power and the responsibility that goes with being a lawyer. My rational side reminded me that I would have to enter the world to make a living. I feel now that the most difficult task is to hold on to what I have learned. The challenge was to keep what I had learned about myself as a person as I entered the world.


"And the Spring comes slowly up this way"

Once upon a time in a place not too far from here there lived a young adolescent girl. Her life was very much like other young adolescent girls in lower middle class families in small rural, West Virginia communities. Daddy was a blue collar worker who earned the family's daily bread by the sweat of his brow. Mommy was a typical homemaker who was always there when the children came home from school. In the families in our that community, the children were taught the Protestant work ethic, male supremacy, fundamentalist religion and that marriages last "for better or worse until death do us part." This little girl was shy, introverted, withdrawn. (Personality traits that are not unusual for little girls like her.) Sometimes she thought about what was going on around her but never considered writing those thoughts down. Then in junior high school, she learned how to write essays. The teacher liked her essays. She wrote about those things she observed going on around her. She wrote about a maple tree she saw outside the classroom window. When school convened in late August the leaves were brilliant summer green. After the autumn's first frost those leaves turned burning shades of yellow, orange and red. One by one the leaves fell to the ground. The janitor raked them up and then put them in the garbage. Barren of leaves, the tree looked desolate, bleak. Its lonely branches resembled a dark skeleton without skin, muscle, or tissues. The bare brown limbs contrasted with the blueness of the sky above and the dying grass below. Then winter came and the tree was powerless a victim besieged by snow and frigid temperatures. Alone and frozen. But somehow deep inside there endured a spark of life.

Time passed. Spring came and the girl watched the leaves develop from small, pale buds into glorious, resplendent leaves. In an essay, the girl compared her life to the tree's. She wrote about the external cycles that the tree sustained--life, death, rebirth. She wrote that understanding the cycles of the tree made growing up a little easier somehow. The teacher said that the essay was one of the best she'd ever written. Then she followed her high school sweetheart to a distant college. She burst into tears even before her parents drove away. She'd never been on her own before. Unconsciously, she transferred that dependence from her parents to her boyfriend, who soon became her husband. She thought a lot about that tree but never wrote it down. She was too busy. Writing in college became traumatic; the instructor never liked what she wrote. She developed a phobia about writing. Time passed. During the divorce, she kept a journal. That too became aversive. First year law school. Moot court brief. The person who evaluated her brief wrote every criticism known to man. Like the janitor with the leaves, the girl threw the brief into the garbage. Every time she picks up a pen to write now there's full scale panic. Writing is just another name for anxiety. My writing is me. I am my writing. If you criticize my writing, you criticize me. I am intimidated by writing because other students have real writing abilities. I see myself as a bumbling idiot who shouldn't put pen to paper.

When I finished writing this, I was struck by a thought that must have been lying there dormant for a long time, the tree analogy helped me see it. My winter has passed. Spring has come. Just as the tree grows new leaves every year, so I must write.


Writing is a release. It is a way to organize my thoughts and record the spontaneity of a moment. It is a way to express my anger, love, joy, hope, fear, dreams, and anxieties. Writing, is my voice. It replaces atrophied and fear-ridden thoughts. It becomes a mask--it hides the inadequate and insecure child and reveals a hidden Self. Yet, my writing is also an expression of that inadequate and insecure child. The writing protects her. The writing is a substitute for what she cannot say. It is a way of avoiding mistakes. The idea is that if I write what I think or feel, I don't run the risk of hurting someone and feeling guilty.

Although my writing is usually in response to others, it is only when I am in touch with myself that I enjoy writing. I only write about feelings. Through writing I engage in self-talk. It is a way to let myself know what I think.

I wasn't afraid to fend for myself in a family of 4 girls and 3 boys. I learned, however, that I wasn't supposed to say anything; so I didn't. I learned that things I said hurt people even though they were never meant to. Hurting people hurt me. I was rewarded for pleasing others, never expressing an opinion, and for being quiet. I didn't hurt people that way. It was safe and I never had to worry about losing friends that I loved or feeling guilty for having said something I wished I hadn't. I kept everything inside. In doing that, however, I cheated myself. I failed to learn how to communicate verbally. I didn't learn how to think and to talk at the same time. Talking became a nightmare. Fear of forgetting, fear of being embarrassed, fear of being inarticulate, and fear of being imperfect, became dominant themes in my life. Failure was inevitable. My sense of self worth was little less than a worm. (Understand that my family was wonderful, these are all my perceptions of the world and how it worked.)

I was determined and ambitious, but I lacked self confidence. I expressed a desire to succeed and to get attention, silently, by doing what I did best--doing well in school. Yet, in school, we never had to write. I simply discovered writing. I found out that rather than spending sleepless nights yelling at someone who wasn't there, rehearsing my anger, or expressing my love, I could write it all out. Then I didn't have to deal with it any longer. I need to be in control. Being out of control is frustrating and angers me. Being out of control means disjointed thoughts, non-communicative speech, lack of organization, inability to think, tears, and withdrawal. My pen, though, in it's infinite wisdom, can take control, command its words, and say what needs to be said. I become master of the page, searing, scorching, thrashing. The pen is a lashing whip through which I express my feelings, coherently, and securely. It gives me strength, power, and energy. It allows me to be assertive, aggressive, sexy, gentle--whatever I need to be.

In writing those feelings, words sometimes fail me, yet when they do, it isn't devastating. I can pause to relax and remember my thought, organize it, and articulate it. If I forget the word, the dictionary is available, and no one knows "I" made the mistake. In writing, I have the courage to try new words and phrases--things I would never have said because someone would think I was "getting above my raisin". In writing I don't have to deal with the fear of forgetting, the fear of making mistakes, and the anger I feel with myself when I back away from personal conversation. My pen transcends time and space. It allows me to touch my Self, to tap resources and energy, and to give others energy. My pen becomes a gentle, soothing touch, through distance. My pen allows me to be a woman instead of a child. It allows me to compete on a woman's level.

I suppose that I have a deep sense of inadequacy and, at least in writing my feelings, I forget about that inadequacy. My writings unfortunately, remain on a feeling level. They are written in a time of need and thrown away (most often) after the feeling subsides. Consequently, the wastebasket is usually the only thing to see my searing words or my energetic comments. (I notice that it is hard for me to say "I". I have made a transition from "I" to "my pen," giving my pen life, to create, to write something important. I want to like what I have written. I am tired of hiding, yet I don't have the courage to come out.

I'm frightened by my lack of knowledge in a world of informed intellectuals. I'm frightened of having been protected and of feeling secure in my ignorance, yet I show people that insecurity and thus perpetuate a child-like image that suggests a person who needs protection. Intellectual efforts leave me feeling inadequate. I want to write more intellectual things. I want to be creative and to let words flow from the unknown parts of my soul--from the inner depths of my being--without feeling inadequate. I want people to look at something I have written someday and to know the person who wrote it as an intellectual, as a person who knows the subject matter, and as a person who knows she is capable.

I would like to be able (whether I ever do it or not) to write a novel or a biography.

My law-school writing experiences have not helped me overcome this fear about my own intellect. Writing as a lawyer could be rewarding because it teaches clarity, organization, succinctness, but instead it's laborious and dull. All the feed-back I have had in law school has been negative. The first paper I wrote received a "C", or I received a "C", and the teacher told me I could not write. My legal brief grade was not much better, and student comments were "it sounds as though you chose your words from a thesaurus and used them incorrectly." I had tried to choose words that would effectively and energetically convey my meaning. My response to the comment--anger, irritation, agony, and putting myself down. The ultimate end to that "put down" is a feeling of "Why am I here? I am not smart. I can't write, and I want to write."

Writing involves courage. It takes courage for a woman to accept the challenge and the responsibility of saying "I" and to allow herself to meet that challenge in the face of Hell's adversity. I have kept the self hidden far too long behind the need to please others, to placate, to be the perfect person that everyone loves. Though being loved is important, it isn't important enough to lose self. Writing involves becoming a creature of courage.


In my writing, I see a story about a woman in law school beginning to realize that she is a woman. A few months ago I would have laughed at such a notion. When I began writing about myself as a woman law student I thought I was just another law student. I have come to realize through the self-exploration in my writing that I a woman about to graduate from law school--and that makes a great deal of difference. I am not sure of what the precise difference is, but I am aware that there really is a difference. At first, I was unaware of the difference, and I believed that my first efforts at writing demonstrate my naive attitude toward being a woman. The discovery has been the source of some pain as I have been forced to look at my childhood and even my early adulthood in a different, more focused manner. I have been provoked and angered by the actions of those close to me. It has been like discovering a hidden cancer, one ignored for a dangerously long time. In recognizing the wounding, however, I believe that in my writing I have attempted to understand the would and why it is so difficult to heal. If it has taken me so long to learn that I have been wounded, it certainly makes sense to anticipate a long recovery.

There are some things that I have not been able to write about. The hurt is still too real, too close to me, to reflect upon it. It is simply too painful to put down on paper knowing that someone else will read it. I am more aware of the need to continue to struggle, to accept the pain--little by little, rather than denying that it exists as I have done all my life. I have found through my writings that a great deal of the pain lies in what is not expressed. Upon re-reading my work I realize that there is so much more to my story as a woman. Sometimes it brings tears. But I am thankful that I now realize that I have been wounded. It feels good to be able to admit that. I have suppressed the pain out of fear. I have feared that if I admit someone has hurt me intentionally, I will hate that person. Hate frightens me, because hate harms only the one who harbors it. I now realize that the denial of pain is really a kind of false martyrdom. I have no time to hate, and do seek to be a martyr. The next step is to forgive those who have hurt me. It is difficult and equally painful. In forgiving, I feel I am sacrificing, giving up, compromising part of myself. I wonder if it is possible to forgive and get on with things, or if it is a matter of recognizing the hurt, understanding it, and then simply picking up the pieces. I feel that I have grown. I know that that may sound trite. Until a month ago, I never referred to myself as a "woman." I saw myself as a"girl" or a "person." I believe that the very act of refusing to call myself a "woman" was a denial of the pain and hurt. So long as I denied that I was a woman, I did not have to feel the pain of discrimination or the antagonism of the legal profession toward women. I do not think that I have ever been so angry. I am more aware of who I am now. There is no more denial on my part that at the essence of my being there is a woman.


Elizabeth Gilbert on Writing
video; 19:29 mins.

Writing Our Way Out of Trouble
TED talk; 18:05 mins.

Medical Students' Reflective Writing
59:59 mins.; Johanna Shapiro


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