Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Kathryn Ma -- Attorney Turned Author

I have just discovered a delightful blog called 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started. And I could really relate to one of the posts, which featured an interview with Kathryn Ma, a former lawyer who left the law firm she worked at to open up a "writing office" and concentrate on her writing. Now she is the winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award for her book of short stories, All That Work and Still No Boys. The way she described practicing the law and then leaving it for writing sent shivers up my spine, because I could relate to it so much, and it's what I want to be able to say myself one day: "I liked being a lawyer, or parts of the job, anyway, like the teamwork and the libraries and the paycheck, and had worked hard at it until I couldn’t stand not writing anymore, and so I packed up my Bekins boxes and set up a little office a half-mile from my house where the siren call of the laundry basket wouldn’t lure me to my doom."

Ms. Ma is my new idol! I have loved to write ever since I can first remember. I always wanted to be a writer - just a writer. But I also needed to make a living. I'll be honest: I wanted a comfortable, secure living, and I wanted to be self-sufficient and independent, relying only on myself and not my parents or a signficant other. These goals obviously competed with my desire to be "just" a writer! So I explored other career options and decided to enter the law because it does involve a lot of reading, writing and thinking, all things that I enjoy, as well as a steady paycheck. I told myself early on that I would work hard, save up a lot of money, and retire early, so that I could just write and travel, like I've always wanted to do (and did in college).

Somewhere along the way, I lost writing for a little while, or maybe I just lost myself. I hated the first year of law school -- I had moved half way across the country, to a state I had never even been to before (to attend the University of New Mexico School of Law) and knew nobody and couldn't figure out what was expected of me or how to get the good grades I had always been used to in high school and college. I finally figured all of that out and came to love New Mexico(but never law school!) and did quite well in law school, when all was said and done. But I just totally stopped reading for fun, and pretty much stopped writing. I had no time for it after all the legal work. I rarely felt creative or drive, and instead just felt like I was trying to keep my head above water and master the legal stuff.

Towards the end of law school I moved in with my boyfriend and let my life totally revolve around his. I was into all of these new things like watching football and playing poker. We skiied/snowboarded together, which I'd always liked, and went on road trips together, and had a grand old time, but I had lost myself. I had given away most of my precious book collection before I moved in with him, without really thinking twice. I never wrote. I did pass the Bar and get a job at a big firm.

A couple years later, I woke up and thought "who am I?" I did the best thing ever then -- I joined a local writer's group and made myself start writing again. I switched firms and was working for an even bigger one, and it was very demanding and stressful and I was miserable. I had enjoyed practicing law at my first firm and I knew I was good at it, but all of my former energy and passion for certain areas of the law was being sucked right out of me, and I was questioning my entire profession and decision to practice law. I thought many times of just quitting and trying to be a freelance writer, or working at a bookshop or as a waitress so I could spend the rest of my time writing.

I suddenly realized that if I wanted to be a writer, I had to really be one. I couldn't waste my days hating my day job and wishing I had time to write, without actually writing much at all. I still entertained the thought of becoming a full-time or at least part-time writer, but I decided that first I would have to make the time to write, in the here and now. I tried to write every day, and I found that I did have the time when I made it, even while I was still working at the big firm. It also made my job there a little easier, because at least I had something going for me in another area of my life.

Probably the best thing that could have happened to me, which felt like the worst thing at the time, happened: I got laid off from the big firm, during the height of the recession. It sucked but it forced me to make a change I knew I had to make, eventually, anyway. And it forced me to make a decision: did I want to continue in the law, or did I want to be a writer? Well, I wanted both. And I did not think (and still don't think, at this point) that being only a writer was a viable option. I do not have the financial wherewithal right now (even with my severance package!) to depend on writing. And I also enjoy practicing law. I knew I would enjoy practicing it even better now that I was forced out of the firm I hated anyway. But I wanted to be a writer too, and I wanted to have enough time to devote to that. No more ridiculous billable hours and crazy pressure.

I was very lucky to find a job at a firm that does "big firm" work but is very small, and very laid-back compared to my former firm. It is the perfect balance, in terms of pay, challenging work, the partners that I work with, hours, etc., between my first firm and my second firm. And most of all, I can much more easily make time to write (I'm still not saying it's easy -- there never seem to be enough hours in the day!), because the hours and the workload aren't so demanding.

I still have moments where I would love to do what Kathryn Ma says she did -- leave my law firm (as much as I enjoy this one) to be a full-time writer. I know I will do it one day, and sometimes I get frustrated wondering if that day will ever come. Law is a demanding profession, and also a trap in a way, because the further I progress in it, the more money I get paid, the higher up on the "partnership" ladder I move, the more connections I make, the more it feels like I should stay in it. (Moving anywhere else to practice law, for example, even at this juncture, would be hard because I have slowly built up a name in this city, and would be nobody in a new city.) But at least I have found a balance, where I can be myself and be a writer *and* an attorney (and I still enjoy watching football with my boyfriend, and our regular ski trips, etc. ;)).

I will just write (and read, which really helps my writing) as much as I can while I practice law, until I am in the financial and emotional position to just focus on writing. Kathryn Ma says it took her ten years to write the stories in her first book. (I don't know if that includes the time period when she was still practicing law or not). I have definitely learned that nothing good comes easily and everything requires hard work and I cannot count on some pie in the sky dream of waking up one day and being a published writer. It seems to me from reading the interview that Ms. Ma had definitely saved up money and had independent resources before she made the decision to leave the law for writing. So it is nice to read about someone actually doing what has been my goal, and being successful at it.

I plan to buy and read Kathryn Ma's book All That Work and Still No Boys and will review it here after I do! But in the meantime, I will keep reading and writing, and being inspired by lawyers-turned-writers, because I eventually plan to be one myself!

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