Clifford Garstang – A Writer’s Life

Clifford Garstang

In our series A Writer’s Life, a succession of living writers reveal how they first started writing, how they got published and something of their daily routine. You’ll be inspired, learn powerful tips and gain a strong sense of the writing life that awaits you.

This week, Clifford Garstang, prize-winning author of The Shaman of Turtle Valley tells us how he made the leap of faith from lawyer to full time writer...

During public appearances, I am often asked how I made the transition from being a lawyer to being a fiction writer. Given the low regard in which the legal profession is held these days, I don’t have to connect the dots for the audience. I simply pause, and the unspoken punchline gets a laugh. But lawyer jokes aside, it’s a real question for which there is a real answer: I worked at it, but it was a long time coming.

A big reader as a kid, I dreamed of becoming a writer and even took some tentative steps in that direction before being sidetracked by the necessity of earning a paycheck.

My Philosophy major in college was a strategic choice. My father accepted that it would be a good foundation for attending law school, which was his dream for me, and I thought it would be equally good preparation for writing serious fiction—the kind of books I liked to read. Disappointing my father, however, I chose not to go to law school upon graduation and instead enrolled in an English Lit Master’s Degree program because, while I didn’t regret my Philosophy major, I felt I needed to address the gaping holes in my knowledge of the literary canon.

While I enjoyed the program and the reading I was doing, I interrupted my studies—my father was none too happy about this choice, either—and embarked on an adventure that turned out to be both an important step in my development as a writer and a monumental detour on that path: I joined the Peace Corps and served for two years as a volunteer in South Korea. Upon returning to grad school and finishing first my Master’s Degree and then a law degree, I began my pursuit of an international law career, one that, for the time being, didn’t have room for my fiction-writing ambitions. One thing I discovered in law school was that lawyers are writers, too, and my undergraduate and graduate school work had prepared me well.

For twenty years, then, I practiced international law, first with one of the world’s largest law firms, in Chicago, Singapore, and Los Angeles, and then with the World Bank in Washington, DC. Unquestionably, it was a fascinating career, one that gave me the opportunity to live overseas and travel extensively. My demanding profession and travel schedule, however, left me with little time to indulge my long-held writing ambition. There just wasn’t time.

Eventually, however, my ambitions resurfaced. While I was living in Washington and still working at the World Bank, making frequent trips to East Asia, I began experimenting with fiction, crafting a novel set in Southeast Asia, drawing on my experience there as a lawyer. Through that process, I discovered that I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d read a lot, I’d had some amazing experiences, and I was fine at writing legal documents, but crafting fiction was a skill I hadn’t yet learned. To remedy that, I enrolled in a fiction workshop at The Writer’s Center just outside of Washington. Among other things, I saw the difference between legal writing and creative writing. In many ways, this was a turning point. I received feedback from a published novelist and many other writing students, I gained confidence, and I began to see a path forward.

When I finished the novel draft I was working on—still a fulltime lawyer at that point, still spending a lot of time on airplanes—I sent out query letters in an effort to find an agent. That effort was not successful, but it too was part of my preparation. I had a taste of how the industry worked, how to engage with it, and how it might react to my writing.

So, in 2001, I decided, after much deliberation but surprisingly little consultation with friends and family, to take an enormous leap of faith: I quit my job and became a fulltime writer. Although the career change seemed sudden, in retrospect I realized I had been preparing for such a move for years, beginning in college.

I then began to consider how I might make the transition from lawyer to fiction writer. I consulted a graduate school professor of mine, one who had been helpful in guiding me toward my M.A. He advised applying to an M.F.A. program in creative writing, not because I had any ambition to teach, but because it would be my introduction to a community of writers at all levels, my fellow beginners as well as more experienced practitioners of the craft. Because a fulltime program was impracticable for me, I enrolled in a low-residency M.F.A. program, and that’s where my real learning began. It was then that I left my job and immersed myself in the writing world. And, more importantly, I began to write regularly.

Preparation didn’t stop there. A writer doesn’t have to do an M.F.A. to find a writing community and there are learning opportunities everywhere. After I finished my M.F.A. program, I attended several writers’ conferences, large and small, in order to study with a variety of teachers and gain exposure to more writers. I also began submitting my short stories to literary magazines, learning in the process how to improve my writing. And I worked with critique groups of my peers, other writers at similar stages of their careers. I learned from their comments on my manuscripts but I also learned by critiquing the work of other writers, noticing the same kinds of mistakes I was making in my own work.

At this point, with my law practice days long behind me, I’d say the transition is complete.

About the author

Clifford Garstang

Clifford Garstang is a former international lawyer and author of The Shaman of Turtle Valley and prize-winning story collections, In an Uncharted Country and What the Zhang Boys Know, and editor of the anthology series, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. With degrees from Northwestern University, Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Garstang was an international lawyer in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Singapore and a legal reform consultant in Kazakhstan. Learn more at: