Photo © Martha Holmes
My consuming interest as a writer is trying to understand how other people view the world. Each of us is a product of experience, so it's very hard to understand another's perspective unless you've encountered the same issues, dealt with the same problems. That's why I practice journalism only occasionally these days -- because while watching and talking can lead to plausible writing, doing the work yourself can lead to lasting insight.
I hadn't thought much about that idea until I spent a year in law school, on a fellowship for journalists, and realized that lawyers and reporters are taught to handle facts very differently. Going in, I naturally preferred my own profession's approach to information -- we focused on accuracy, on the public's "right to know" -- but came to see that the lawyer's way, in some cases, was equally valid. I never warmed to the "legal frame of mind" -- too often it was used to trick, to intimidate, to sidestep moral issues, or just pile up cash -- but I came to understand law's appeal. Legal training is said to "sharpen the mind by narrowing it"...but if you're aware of that tendency, you can keep your mind broad, and open.
I wrote "Anarchy and Elegance" to try to understand my strong, mixed reaction to law school. And while my follow-up book, "Roadster," hardly seems like a sequel, it is: after wrestling for years with the abstract concepts on which law is built -- the slow, evolutionary interplay between legal theory and social practice -- I wanted to deal with simple, straightforward, non-"fungible" ideas. Having learned that man-made laws are not nearly so logical, objective, and reliable as people are led to believe, I turned to the physical laws of auto mechanics. Those laws, surely, were immutable, not subject to interpretation; while building a car I could gain some insight into the way people learn, and maybe into life itself.
And that happened, to some extent. But the main thing I learned is that I'm basically a travel writer...though I don't have to go anywhere to do my job, for there are plenty of unexplored cultures right here at home. Lawyers make up one such culture; gearheads, another; and every such culture is worth exploring, for sheer adventure's sake, but also to see the world through another's eyes. By nature I'm a bookish, waste-not-want-not environmentalist...but it was thrilling, nonetheless, to build a gas-guzzling Lotus replica and race it against hard-core speed demons on the racetrack. I understand, now, why they do what they do, and how deeply experience can shape perspective.
These days I'm teaching, and working on a novel, and writing a book about volunteering with non-profit home-builder Habitat for Humanity. I was on my tenth or eleventh house before I realized, with Habitat, I was combining the two major themes of my first books -- the search for social justice, and the visceral need to build, create, with one's own bare hands.
Created by The Authors Guild
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