If you’ve ever entertained the notion of pursuing something creative — singing, acting, painting — you’ve likely heard this well-intentioned advice: “Don’t quit your day job.”
Despite appearances to the contrary, I didn’t quit my day job as an attorney to write a novel. Quite the opposite. Years of working as a public defender, representing men and women in their lowest moments, their freedom on the line, built up a wealth of material in me that could no longer be confined to a legal brief. I became a novelist not to escape being a lawyer but because being a lawyer demanded that I become a novelist.
I practiced law for 23 years before I ever wrote a short story or a personal essay. The first two legal jobs I had — associate at a big law firm and judicial law clerk — taught me an approach that I would later bring to my writing. At the firm, I learned how to be meticulous with language, to check and recheck every word to make sure it conveyed the exact meaning I intended. There were times when this was a dreary and tedious business. But it ingrained in me a level of precision that I’ve never lost. Words matter. As a law clerk, I learned another critical lesson: Comporting yourself with confidence — even if you’re not always feeling it — goes a long way toward inspiring others to have confidence in you. Writing precisely and with authority helps your readers feel safe.
In almost 20 years of representing defendants appealing their criminal convictions, I tackled a panoply of issues of substantive criminal law and procedure: How much information do the police need to frisk a person or to search the trunk of a car? Is interrogating a 15-year-old for hours on end fundamentally different than questioning an adult for the same amount of time? How do you prove that a prosecutor is unconstitutionally excluding prospective jurors based on their race? If a defense lawyer dozes through parts of his client’s trial, is that ineffective assistance of counsel? What does it mean to murder someone intentionally rather than with reckless depravity, and does the difference really matter?
“I was intrigued and sometimes overwhelmed by the whys and hows of the choices my clients had made that landed their appeals on my desk.”
As intellectually challenging as the legal questions were, it was the personal stories — bursting with energy, pathos and humanity — that filled my head. I was intrigued and sometimes overwhelmed by the whys and hows of the choices my clients had made that landed their appeals on my desk. Why would a teenager with his whole life ahead of him stab another boy over an iPod? What would make a parent override her most basic instincts to the point where she could put her toddler into a bathtub of scalding water? What demons must plague a person to cause him to incinerate his beloved aunt, genuinely believing she would rise from the ashes?
As an appellate attorney, I was acutely aware that because I was limited by the testimony and exhibits submitted at trial, I knew just the outer layer of my clients’ stories — the facts immediately surrounding the crime — but little of the person underneath. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, there is a kind of knowledge that can be gained only “through empathy and identification with another.” Writing fiction enables me to free myself from the stark facts of the criminal record and imagine the defendant’s first love, his aspirations, his thoughts about where he might fit into the world. Inventing the characters makes it possible for me to identify the redemptive qualities that were simply out of reach in the role of an appellate attorney.
And while writing fiction can’t actually provide the answers to the “why” or “how” questions — it can only imagine them — it empowers both the writer and the reader to delve deeper than the newspaper headlines and the courtroom drama will allow, and perhaps to glimpse the divine spark that lies within us all.
Reyna Marder Gentin is a graduate of Yale Law School. Her debut novel, “Unreasonable Doubts,” is now available. See Reyna’s work here.