Monday, May 25, 2015

On Writing #61 : Carolyn Marie Souaid

Lawyers, Liars & Writers
Carolyn Marie Souaid

I come from a family of lawyers. Successful lawyers. Movers and shakers with an extraordinary list of accomplishments. Having graduated first in my class, it’s no wonder I was expected to follow in their footsteps. Join “the firm,” as it were. I applied and landed a scholarship. But something was niggling at me, making me feel uneasy. Even before starting I was ready to quit.

One afternoon, while I was still wavering, the lot of them sat me down in my grandmother’s dining room, at the far end of her long, intimidating, mahogany table to urge me to continue the family tradition. The summer heat was oppressive. “Law will open doors and guarantee you a decent future,” they explained. I glanced up at the crystal chandelier. “Get the degree. Then you can do whatever you want.”

That fall, I entered the Faculty of Law at McGill University.

At the welcome orientation, the Dean told us to have a look at the people sitting to our left and right. Eyes aglitter, she announced that one of us would be gone by the following year. When I blinked, it was already midterms and everyone but me was ensconced in a study group. As my classmates worked toward their bright futures in corporate, tax and international law, whatever would make them briefcase-loads of money, I pondered a somewhat less glamorous (but more meaningful) career in Legal Aid. I envisioned talking to my disheveled, down-and-out clients through protective glass, eyed by a pair of surly prison guards.

“What do you want to do that for?” asked the other students. They screwed up their noses. In their eyes I could see they had handed down their verdict: mine would be a waste of a good education. 

My heart was elsewhere, of course. While the rest tucked themselves away in the library, cramming, ripping pages out of reference books – yes, they actually did that – to keep rivals (like me) from the answers to the assignments, I was in the Leacock Building attending lectures by renowned playwrights and novelists. (Waiting for coffee in the cafeteria line, who but I could boast having Edward Albee’s signature on the inside cover of my Property Law textbook?) 

All my life I had dreamed of being a writer. I wrote constantly. In the early 70s, after watching an earlier generation of kids turn on, tune in and drop out, I began writing an ongoing saga for my neighbourhood friends, a soap opera style novel about a group of rebellious teens living together on a commune. I filled my story with all the juicy things that a budding writer, all of twelve, thought readers would go for: drugs, romance, suicide, a smattering of F-words. Once a week, the kids would join me on my front lawn while I read out a new installment. I was in my element. Their attentiveness to my words, characters and plots gave me a glowing sense of accomplishment.

My other joy, poetry, I kept private. Nature poetry, love poetry. The poetry of dark despair. I was an unhappy adolescent. It was the perfect outlet.

Just before I graduated from high school, I was doing a little spring-cleaning in my bedroom and ran across all my old writing, the soap opera, the poetry of angst. Suddenly, it was a source of embarrassment. I decided that it had to go. All of it. There could be no living record of it. My ego puffed up, I might have imagined scholars a hundred years from now rummaging through my unpublished works, discovering all that mediocre juvenilia. Maybe I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to be remembered by. With a clear head, I piled all my notebooks on the sidewalk, lit a match and watched the lot go up in flames. I threw the ashes down the sewer and decided that I would wait until I had something better to write about. Even if it took years.

Three months into law school, I couldn’t stand it anymore: To my writer’s ears, the word “lawyer” sounded too close to another word. Lawyers are liars, I concluded. They lie to win their cases. (Or at least to manipulate the facts in their favour.)

In December, I got up my courage. I didn’t forewarn my parents: I didn’t want the counsel of our family lawyers. I didn’t want to be talked out of it. Just like that, I marched into the Dean’s office and announced that I was quitting. My gaze was already fixed ahead— looking to all the books I would write. I imagined the burgeoning joy of watching a poem take root and then blossom into something of beauty. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the hardship, too, the romantic image of the poet toiling in a cold, dark garret. The rest was still veiled, of course: the unavoidable, constant struggle to make ends meet.

Now that I have experienced it, now that I know what it is to live on a shoestring while I create art for a small – almost negligible – readership, I take comfort in the knowledge that I’m not the first writer whose path veered from law to this difficult, less-travelled one. Victor Hugo studied but never practiced law. I think it’s fair to say he wielded more justice in Les Misérables than he would have in the courtroom. Back in the 14th century, Petrarch went against his father’s wishes and abandoned the profession too. His sonnets have freed more hearts and minds than his courtroom pleas ever could have. And after ditching law and heading off to Madrid in 1919 to pursue his dream of being a writer, Federico Garcia Lorca wrote poems and plays that speak more powerfully and eloquently than any summation he might have penned.

Others have had the discipline and good fortune to do both. Here in Montreal, in my own backyard, F.R. Scott and A.M. Klein did it, although Klein, as a lawyer, made a good poet. Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, dropped law altogether. It turned out to be a good decision.

In my own case, I believe I did the right thing as well, though it’s too soon to know whether there will be a literary payoff, meaning posterity. I prefer to remain humble. And hopeful.

Lawyers. Writers. We are as close and as far away as we can possibly be from one another. Like lawyers, writers are liars too.

But we lie to better weave a story, to tell the truth about the world we live in. Or at least to manipulate the facts in Truth’s favour.

Carolyn Marie Souaid is a Montreal-based poet and the co-author of Blood is Blood, which was awarded a prize at the 2012 Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. Her seventh book, This World We Invented, recently appeared with Brick Books. She has just completed her first novel.

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