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.