HOW I BECAME A WRITER
When I was eight years old, I wanted to be a writer. I created a newspaper at home then. All the news was made-up. The movies were imaginary, the reviews of movies, and the books, too. I hand-printed the articles and drew illustrations. I loved creating make-believe. Often, I gazed longingly at the back pages of magazines where I found ads for writing schools by correspondence, imagining some day I would enroll in one.
However, I grew up and became a lawyer. I never lost my desire to write or draw. But law was practical, a way to help people. After graduating from law school, I worked for Colorado Rural Legal Services. Our offices were in a rambling Victorian house in Denver. I helped people with divorce, immigration, or when they had no money to pay utility bills and their electricity was cut-off without notice. I drove my yellow Volkswagen convertible Bug to Fort Morgan and other towns on the flat, barren Eastern plains. I was a traveling saleswoman then, offering my wares my legal knowledge to clients who I talked with at schools or community centers, who could not afford to pay for a lawyer's help.
Next, I worked as a public defender in Arapahoe County, Colorado, representing poor people charged with crimes. My office was a small, narrow, windowless room in the basement of the public defender's building. My caseload was 125. Every day I appeared in court for arraignments, hearings and jury trials. I visited clients in jail, worked days, nights, and weekends. Everywhere I looked while practicing law, I saw fractured lives and stories that needed telling.
I was always writing then legal briefs, reports, opening and closing statements, questions for jurors, in my journal or on pieces of scrap paper. I jotted my impressions and descriptions of clients, judges, the courts. I wrote as I waited for the bailiff to call up a case and during recesses. I began to put on paper what I heard people say. Funny, poignant, angry words. A judge sentenced my client, Marcia, a young mother, to 100 days in jail for misdemeanor theft. The bailiff pulled her children from her as she stood before the judge. She screamed, No and collapsed on the floor. Another client angrily told the judge he didn't want me as his lawyer. She's trying to kill me. She has a knife strapped to her leg. She works for the CIA, the man yelled. I thought to myself: if I do not write this down, how will I remember?
In college, I had taken English literature classes. The most memorable was taught by the poet, Donald Hall. He used to strut across the auditorium stage and recite from Ulysses or a Yeats poem. We students were spellbound by the beauty of the words and Hall's stunning delivery. I thought of that class as I practiced law. I decided to try to transform my scribblings into poems. One day, I gathered my courage and sent Professor Hall a few poems, those I had labored over. He generously responded with a critique, cautioning me against using clichés, but telling me the poems had energy. There seemed to be a hint of hope in his words. I held onto this as I handled my cases and began to daydream about being a writer one day.
Law, I discovered, like life, was filled with stories. We lawyers asked questions of our clients so we could understand their stories. Then we fashioned a tale we wanted a jury to hear, our version of the events. We manipulated the facts, but never lied. I was a saleswoman again, this time selling my version of the facts to a jury. Sometimes the narrative of a case seemed more fiction than fact. In this way, my legal work became a kind of apprenticeship for writing stories.
During this period, I wrote poetry about clients. I read novels and poems. I realized there were two parts, at least, of me, the professional/ lawyer, and the writer who loved words and lived underground. I submitted a poem to a local anthology; it was accepted. I was thrilled. From moment to moment, I wasn't sure which part would take precedence, writer or lawyer.
The other public defenders in the county were men, articulate and charismatic. We all worked hard and viewed ourselves as warriors defending justice. One attorney, Forrest Boogie Lewis, was from Texas and could weave a tale about anything, keep the listeners spellbound. He was tall with thick blonde hair and luminous blue eyes. He seduced you or a jury with words. I realized he was a natural story teller and that poems couldn't quite capture our clients' lives.
I decided to try writing stories. I used a kernel of truth and made up the rest. This secret pleasure, writing, fueled me during the long, combative days of being a defense attorney. I often stayed late at work and used the secretary's electric typewriter. I pounded out poems and stories. One night, Boogie came back to the office late and found me at the secretary's desk.
What's that you're doing? he asked.
Writing a poem, I said, embarrassed. I hoped for a comrade in this venture, that he would be enchanted with writing as I was. I felt my face redden, as if he had caught me in a compromising position.
He blinked. Well, see you tomorrow.
I sent my stories to a journalist friend who worked at the Colorado Daily, a Boulder newspaper: She gave me suggestions for them and wanted to publish one. Again, I was thrilled. Someday I would have more time to write, I thought.
Public defender work was gratifying, but hard. We represented clients charged with murder, theft, assault, and child abuse. There were five public defenders in the county and twenty-eight district attorneys. The demands of the caseload, the intricate criminal trials, and gritty stories took a toll on everyone in the office. Our investigator quit. The head of our office quit and later committed suicide. The other lawyers drank too much and looked ragged. Another lawyer quit. The new head of the office was a former prosecutor, and to the public defenders left, he seemed a turncoat without loyalties.
I left this job when I moved with my husband-to-be to another city for his work. Then two years later later, we returned to Denver and I began a private practice of law. But when I gave birth to our second child, I decided to accept fewer cases. I wanted to spend more time with the children and also write. One day, I noticed an ad in the newspaper for the Aspen Writers Conference. We were going to a family reunion in Aspen at the same time. I attended both. My instructor, Kathleen Spivak, told me my poems sounded like stories. You should take a class. You'll grow faster as a writer that way, she advised.
A professor at the University of Denver allowed me to enroll as a special student in a fiction writing class. I had the least experience in writing of any student there. I was the oldest by far, almost 35. The others were in their mid-twenties, pursuing advanced writing degrees. They dazzled me with their words, their freedom, and graduate school path. I was a mother of two then three, but I wanted to learn to write, to be part of a world that encouraged this. I wanted, I told a new writer friend, to see if I could do this, be a writer. To see if my childhood fantasies were right or wrong.
I enrolled in one class a semester. The more I learned about writing, the less, I realized, I knew. After my children were asleep, I stayed up late writing, as if practicing. I debated over words and phrases. I found I had endless patience for this. These nighttime hours became my favorite ones. I was elated and crushed by the comments about my work in class. Often, I despaired because of the gap between my vision of what I wanted to write and the limitations of my words on the page. I sometimes gazed longingly at my law degree, wishing for a similar degree as a writer, one that could confer legitimacy and success. My writing suddenly seemed like work, but also a pleasure, and felt as precious and fragile to me as my young children.
My plan was to attend an MFA program, but at the time I could not because of family responsibilities and a move to another city. So I constructed a writing life. I joined a writing group, worked with mentors, went to writers' conferences, and seized stretches of time for reading and writing. I learned from friends who were further along.
I did not know what the outcome of my efforts would be. My goal was to write publishable stories filled with emotion. I felt compelled to find the right words. I was still a saleswoman offering my wares, but now I was selling the fictional dream. Writer friends helped balance the solitary demands of the writer's work. They taught me about the fickle and arbitrary nature of the publishing world, too.
Finally, I gathered my courage again and began to submit stories to literary magazines. Friends warned me about all the rejection a writer receives. There was more than I anticipated, a shocking and discouraging amount. Still, the infrequent hand-written rejections and occasional publication of a story thrilled me, encouraged me to continue. Writing had become my steady companion. My characters were like old friends. Often, I understood them with more clarity than I did my real companions.
On difficult days, the writing was a struggle filled with doubt and frustration, much harder to master than an intricate criminal trial. But on the best days, I felt exhilarated. I forgot about law then and the disappointments of rejection. Bent over my papers or computer, time seemed to stand still I was eight years old again, creating fiction, in love with make-believe worlds.
RONNA WINEBERG's collection of short stories, Second Language, won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition and was published in October, 2005. The book was chosen as the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. Wineberg has received a fellowship in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the John Atherton Scholarship at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Her work has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She has been a Finalist for the Willa Cather Fiction Prize and in the Moment-Karma Short Fiction Contest. She has also been awarded residencies to the Ragdale Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and has taught writing at New York University and elsewhere. Since 2000, she has been the fiction editor of the Bellevue Literary Review.
[copyright 2007, Ronna Wineberg]