Dead Letters


I used to think I knew how to write. I thought I could craft a sentence, build a paragraph. I was even so bold as to think I could turn the occasional clever phrase. Mere hubris. Fortunately I have been shaken free of that complacency. It’s not like I forgot how to spell, or to type, or to scribble lines and curves out into words on a page. I had the mechanics down. Or at least some of them. What I had yet to learn that writing – good writing – is all mechanics. It should have the clean, shiny finish of nineteen-fifties aluminum, smelling like diner countertops and freshly-milled airplane parts. Rap you knuckle on it, and it should ping.

My prose, in contrast, laid about in a kudzu sprawl. I foolishly thought this made it more interesting, that the twisty and knobbly bits served some purpose, even if I couldn’t articulate it. Writing was meant to be organic, to spread of its own accord, driven onward by indirect but irresistible forces of nature. It would latch improbably onto the sides of mountains, cling resolutely to windswept deserts, pry up paving stones and sidewalks, driven by an unknowable will. At most, it could be guided, pruned, gently encouraged to grow in a certain direction. But when you got down to essentials, to late nights and missed deadlines, it was always a wild thing, beyond control.

The law, of course, cannot abide such unpredictability. Such imprecision. Words should whir and click. When they are forceful, they should clang. When they are soothing, they should buzz, or hum softly. They should certainly not be alive. The law has met living things before. They were messy and sticky and squishy. They gummed up the gears and left dents on shiny surfaces. It didn’t go well. The law works best when things are good and dead.

The time came when I had to produce some words for class. Some hard, disciplined words quite unlike the ones I get in this garden the Record has given me to play in. I sat down to write, trying to think of straight lines and sharp corners. I tried to cram prose into little boxes labeled “Question Presented” and “Umbrella Paragraph.” I stumbled through the instructions for assembling a CRuPAC, banging my shins on its odd angles. I tried building another and another, but each attempt felt as alien as the one before it. I pressed onwards, trying not to look back at the detritus I’d left strewn across the pages above. At some point I must have shuddered to a stop. Certainly no graceful finish, for I would have remembered finishing if I’d done it well. As it was, the whole experience was so disjointed, so full of abrupt shifts and brutal halts, that the last sentence felt no different than any that came before it. Exhausted, I sent the thing on its way and collapsed into sleep.

I put off looking at it for days, waiting until we had to produce them for class. And with good reason. It was hideous. I had at least made sure it was dead, a papery, frail, desiccated thing. But it also lacked any of the strength the law would demand. It sat in a crumpled heap in front of me, appendages awkwardly tacked on at odd angles, creaking and rattling as I poked it. I gazed mournfully at my classmates’ creations. Sure, many showed signs of rough workmanship. One was smoking. But a few gleamed in the glow of laptop screens, bristling with martial focus. They were positively frightening. And they all down to the last one seemed to have a sense of direction, a hint of a useful purpose. Already the class was moving on to talk about refinements to be made. They earnestly compared notes as we were lectured on how to make everything cleaner, straighter, sharper.

I looked back at the jumble in front of me. I could see it was beyond salvage, that the more I hacked and sawed at it the more creaky it would become. I didn’t understand the principles behind the design, the secret wisdom that informed the structure, but I could still at least recognize traces of it in my work. That would have to do for now. I sighed and gave the pile a desultory prod, one dead thing to another. It clattered sympathetically. “Don’t worry,” I whispered softly, “I’m sure the next one will be merely bad.”

Trevor Austin wrote this column instead of a memo about summary judgment. If you don’t want to do your work either, write him instead at