In the Eye of the Beholder

By Alaina Alexander

I remember reciting stories into a tape recorder and playing them back for the neighborhood kids. Sometimes my stories wouldn’t go over well or the tape would run out, and in either case, I found myself high-tailing it home with a gang of kids close on my tail. They debated whether or not to throttle me, but many times they just wanted to hear the end of the story. Usually, I was forced to improvise an ending on the spot.

Fast forward to high school and I was writing for the school newspaper with dreams of becoming a 20/20 correspondent. My journalism teacher raved about my writing and encouraged me. Unfortunately, My honors English teacher was unimpressed with my writing style and she seemed to always be on the verge of flunking me.

“You just don’t have any literary style,” she told me in a clipped tone during our one-on-one conference.

I didn’t take her criticism personally; besides, I had more in common with Diane Sawyer than Kate Millet.

The following semester I was sitting in a regular English class with the rest of the slackers and misfits. I didn’t consider it a real class; it was more of a study hall environment. It was also the perfect place for me to brainstorm and write short stories.

During college, I became a frequent contributor to the school newspaper. I wrote opinion columns and a recurring mystery series. Some of my classmates were unfamiliar with the genre of the serial story. Some of them inquired as to why I couldn’t seem to fit the whole story into one edition of the newspaper.

My mystery series engaged one of the Christian Brothers whose monastery was attached to the school. I will never forget being summoned to meet him. He was a small-boned man, but he had this incredible presence and a tall walking stick. He informed me that he enjoyed having my stories read to him before he took his daily nap. For months after that meeting, I felt invincible against criticism of any kind.

After college graduation, I was published a couple of times in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and in a metro weekly. My illusions about the life of a writer were violently shattered with each rejection slip that I got, even though I was used to receiving criticism about my writing. It was soul-shaking when it came from magazine and newspaper editors. It was an extremely stressful time for me and I was no longer able to seek refuge in my writing.

I figured that if magazine and newspaper editors didn’t want my writing then I would find away to bring it to the public at large. Six months later, I created Makinrent.com with a former college classmate. Makinrent.com is designed to help folks get started in the creative arts industry.

During this time, I was also in my first year of law school, where I witnessed first hand just how clunky legal writing could be. Instead of being detailed and concise, many of the legal briefs I read were rambling and downright repetitive. Each time I wrote an assignment, I envisioned myself as an overworked law clerk plowing through a pile of briefs. I reasoned that in order for my brief to stand out, I only needed to state my case and back it up with law and precedents. I was naïve to say the least.

Amazingly, my concise technique worked for the first seven months of Legal Writing, but towards the end of the spring semester everything fell apart. My D+ in Legal Writing proved to be the death knell for my brief law school career. In hindsight, I realize that legal writing in a law school atmosphere differs greatly from the real world. Armed with my new knowledge about legal writing in law school, I think that the second time will be a charm.

It took ten months to recover from the Legal Writing debacle. Even after I enrolled into a paralegal studies program, the professor’s words haunted me each time I wrote a legal brief or memo. I would spend days laboring over a single sentence, fearful that my paralegal instructors would discover just what a horrible writer I was

During this time, I was also working on the book version of my Website and I was terrified to write the agent query letters. I kept thinking that no literary agent in his or her right mind would ever want to represent a legal writing loser such as myself. I wrote the query letters anyway and within a few weeks the rejections started pouring in. Surprisingly, though, four literary agents requested a copy of the book proposal. Five months later, I was taking meetings with literary agents in New York City. On the plane trip back to Minneapolis, I reflected on all of my writing detractors.

I wondered what my former honors English teacher, former Legal Writing faculty, college classmates, and the detractors would say if they knew that I had a literary agent. Then I realized that I didn’t care, because writing is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Alaina Alexander is a freelance writer living in the Twin Cities. She is also the creator of Dismissedlawstudent.com.

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