Ten days ago I gave a talk to 20 Scottish judges as part of a two-day seminar on Judicial Writing and Reasoning. I was the cabaret on the second morning, a one-hour slot sandwiched between the Lord Justice Clerk who was talking about writing for appeal courts, and two academics from Edinburgh University who talked about rhetoric and logic.
My father was a judge, a very senior one. He could be terrifyingly stern when he wanted. The prospect of facing 20 of his ilk in a training suite in the bowels of Parliament House, home of the High Court in Edinburgh, was about as daunting as anything I’ve done. Still, I put together a short presentation, girded my loins and, feeling like Daniel, sallied forth.
The topic I’d been asked to speak on was Writing and Writer’s Block. A few minutes in I asked the judges if any of them ever had trouble getting started with their judgments. The room remained silent and not a hand went up. Hmmm. Still, I’d been assured by the organisers that this was procrastination by any other name and that there were some seasoned procrastinators among them – although to be fair, they went on, much of that was down to the weight of the judges’ caseloads.
I had already decided that I would get them to do a short exercise designed to kick-start a piece of writing, so I carried on. The exercise is one of the most basic tools of every writing teacher’s or trainer’s kit. It’s designed to bypass the inhibitions that we so often bring to the writing process, and take the writer straight to the place where the ideas are wriggling away in a kind of sub-conscious amniotic fluid. It constantly surprises people with its power to unpick the most intractable mental knots, shine light into darkness and confusion, or simply boot the thinking process into action.
In setting up the exercise I usually quote EM Forster’s illuminating remark, ‘how do I know what I think till I see what I say’; Ted Hughes who talked brilliantly about ‘sidestepping the inner policeman’; and Stephen King who preaches writing a first draft ‘with the door closed’, meaning for no one’s eyes but his own. This time I had one more arrow in my quiver.
Friendly Sheriff Welsh, director of the Judicial Institute, organisers of the seminar, had tipped me off about the Flowers Paradigm. Betty Sue Flowers is an eminent American academic, emeritus professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, creative writing teacher, museum and library director, adviser to corporations and governments and so on and so forth. Her paradigm, which given all her other accomplishments she probably dashed off on a Friday night, goes like this:
Every writer brings four people to the writing table: a madman, an architect, a carpenter and a judge. The madman is the unfettered creative genius, the source of raw energy and ideas. The architect is the visionary and planner who gives shape to the building born of the madman’s ideas. The carpenter hammers away bringing form to the architect’s plans. The judge waits till everyone else has finished, then goes round with a magnifying glass shaking his or her head. The trick for the writer, of course, is to understand that he or she needs them all at different stages of the process.
For my audience this was perfect, I thought. I would focus on the first and last. The idea of asking a group of judges to tell their own inner judges to push off and make way for their inner madmen appealed to me. Happily it seemed to appeal to them too. Afterwards, some admitted that it had helped them look in a fresh light at judgments they had yet to write.
That done, I went on to talk about the need for kindness in the language of judgments. These are pieces of writing that can profoundly affect people’s lives and some degree of empathy or humanity in the way they are expressed seems essential, no matter how even-handed and clearly argued they have to be. Are there roles for the architect and carpenter in designing out, or planing away, the jargon and Latin and obscure legal syntax? Or does developing the tone of a piece of writing fall to a fifth, as yet unnamed character? I need a separate post to work that thought through. All suggestions welcome, of course.
Meanwhile I’ll definitely use the Flowers Paradigm again – possibly even this weekend, as Sarah and I run Part Two of The Stories We Tell, our personal insight workshops, for the first time. One of the things we’ll be looking at is sub-personalities, that chorus of inner voices that are constantly competing for our attention; and how getting to know them better can help us to be both more creative and more accepting of ourselves.
Speaking for myself, I know very well I have a judge in there (guess who…). Sometimes I wonder whether I know the madman well enough.
Daunting forum Jamie, glad you didnt get sent down for a year for breach of the peace.
Perhaps the fifth character should be the romantic. The madman may bring the ideas, but the romantic always brings hope to whatever you are writing, whether it be a letter of complaint, a thriller or just an annual report. All writing needs hope.
Your fifth character should be a priest. That would open the Pandora’s box.
Or God. Or the Devil. (Or maybe both would already be represented by the priest.)
Having run many workshops in Ireland recently, another character has been in the room. Told that they can start a sentence with ‘And’, for example, many people trembled visibly and said “No, the nun inside my head would never let me.” Sometimes the nun would be ‘the Christian brothers’ but the effect was the same.
Ah! See my reply to comment above!
Ah, Jauncey The Brave!
A fifth character? Good writing needs tone, cadence, rhythm – so can we add a musician?
Now, what was the writing exercise?
So we have romantic, priest (Christian brothers/sisters), and musician. This is going to be entertaining. Thanks John, George, John and Neil. Any more … ? Aha, and now we add God and the Devil (thanks James). It’s starting to get noisy in there …
With that many guests, you’d better add a caterer
God will provide. Apparently.