Monday, May 3, 2010

Language

A paradox: when you're in the grip of literature -- of poetics, rhetoric, narrative, drama, symbolism, metaphor, style, grammar, diction and micro-nuance in all its lovely rise and fall, its innuendos and insinuations, its expeditions into the brain, its commando raids on the heart and its ambushes of the understanding -- when you are in that lifelong grip, it's bloody hard to write a document for legal purposes the way such a document is supposed to be written.

My dear, stern legal friend D took one look at my first draft and clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes. Said No no no, the court doesn't want to know How it All Went Wrong. I said But that's the interesting important stuff, and she just looked at me pityingly and clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes some more, and re-wrote the first few paragraphs for me in legalese on a paper napkin, before we turned to the more interesting and pleasant pursuit of doing the Saturday morning Crossquiz, with the help of Google courtesy of the iPhone of Last Resort.

So because she is very very good and experienced at this stuff, and because I am supporting a loved one's application for divorce and want to do it effectively and properly, I've just re-written it the way she told me to re-write it. But I don't think she realised quite how violently the clunky legalistic style would go against my grain.

I've already done my 2008-2009 tax preparations tonight, a mere nine months late, and may have been asking too much of the ageing psyche, trying to do this affidavit as well on the same night. I need another Scotch and I know that's not a good idea; if I keep this up I'll be fronting up to the accountant tomorrow morning with a sickening hangover, not for the first time, but at least my current accountant does not suffer from the BO of the former one so that should help. Yes yes, too much information. Sorry.

(Then of course there's, you know, work. Deadline, book reviews, that kind of thing. None of which I've done today except for the 30 pages of vampire splatterfest over morning coffee. Thank God for Alexander McCall Smith, who has yet another charming title out -- The Dog Who Came In From the Cold -- and can be read with great pleasure and no effort in the blink of an eye.)

What I've just printed out for the court may be the most wooden document I've ever written in my whole life, with the possible exception of my own application for divorce, back in my child-bride days. I can barely bring myself to admit that I wrote it. And all I can see is the pain between the lines.

11 comments:

skepticlawyer said...

If it is any consolation, I apologise on behalf of law-kind for the infelicities of our prose. The emotions may not be skilled workers, but lawyerese - with rare exceptions - does not make for skilled emotions.

Mindy said...

Pain for a good cause though. I hope it helps your friend get through this and come out the other side with something.

An accountant with BO? You wonder that no one ever mentioned it to him(?).

Legal Eagle said...

That could be part of the reason why the law is frustrating - it doesn't allow people to "say it how it was". But then, the problem for a lawyer in letting people say it how it was is that you get overwhelmed by all this detail which is not actually relevant to the decision the court has to make. So it's dry, dry, dry, all the way ("Jus' the facts, ma'am").

I used to work in a court, and was a minute-keeper for one of the court's committees. The judge who chaired that particular committee came to me one day and said, "You have to stop injecting EMOTION into the minutes." Emotion? How could those minutes be any MORE emotionless? They were the most boring things in the whole world.

(Well, okay, I confess it, I had been putting in things like, "Mr X proposed blah, but Justice Y interjected that he was unsure as to the correctness of blah." It must have been the use of words like "interjected" which made those minutes emotional, that's all I can conclude.)

Zoe said...

"all I can see is the pain between the lines"

If you worked in the Family Court, you really don't need to understand the particular grief of each situation.

I hated writing like a lawyer. Writing like a lawyer writing about cops was absolutely the worst kind.

Suze said...

I'm surprised modern divorce requires an affadavit from an outside party.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Suze, usually it doesn't, but there are certain circs under which it does.

TimT said...

It's funny that a lot of the unacknowledged jobs in writing these days - professional writing, writing inhouse work manuals, writing reports, etc - is required to be so dull and lifeless.

The only spot of writing I do at work nowadays is the little summary I get to give my transcripts. The most pleasing sort of summary I get to do is this:

Discussion about various matters.

Great writers always aim for brevity and simplicity. Then again, rewriting Oscar Wilde or Hemingway in this way would seem to detract from their works somewhat:

The Importance of Being Earnest - discussion about various matters.

The Old Man and the Sea - story about various topics.

abagail said...

Your first para reads like poetry. Wouldn't it be great if lawyers and politicians were as linguistically gifted?

cristy said...

You should read Lord Denning (Justice for English House of Lords). He managed to inject plenty of poetry into his judgments and is generally adored for it too.

Other than him, you are quite right. The faculty of law have spent the last four years beating the life out of my poor thesis. Aparently it started out sounding too much like I cared about the issues...

Legal Eagle said...

Oh yes, Lord Denning. Swoon. I've got a little excerpt of my favourite one in a post here.

Cristy, yes, I've been told to cut out all the adjectives in my law thesis too. Sad, sad, sad.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Robert Graves have an essay knocked back by his tutor at Oxford with:'It seems, Mr Graves, you prefer some poets to others.' ?
Clarrie