Clifford Garstang – A Writer’s Life

Clifford Garstang

In our series A Writer’s Life, a succession of living writers reveal how they first started writing, how they got published and something of their daily routine. You’ll be inspired, learn powerful tips and gain a strong sense of the writing life that awaits you.

This week, Clifford Garstang, prize-winning author of The Shaman of Turtle Valley tells us how he made the leap of faith from lawyer to full time writer...

During public appearances, I am
often asked how I made the transition from being a lawyer to being a
fiction writer. Given the low regard in which the legal profession is
held these days, I don’t have to connect the dots for the audience.
I simply pause, and the unspoken punchline gets a laugh. But lawyer
jokes aside, it’s a real question for which there is a real answer:
I worked at it, but it was a long time coming.

A big reader as a kid, I dreamed of becoming a writer and even took some tentative steps in that direction before being sidetracked by the necessity of earning a paycheck.

My Philosophy major in college was a
strategic choice. My father accepted that it would be a good
foundation for attending law school, which was his dream for me, and
I thought it would be equally good preparation for writing serious
fiction—the kind of books I liked to read. Disappointing my father,
however, I chose not to go to law school upon graduation and instead
enrolled in an English Lit Master’s Degree program because, while I
didn’t regret my Philosophy major, I felt I needed to address the
gaping holes in my knowledge of the literary canon.

While I enjoyed the program and the reading I was doing, I interrupted my studies—my father was none too happy about this choice, either—and embarked on an adventure that turned out to be both an important step in my development as a writer and a monumental detour on that path: I joined the Peace Corps and served for two years as a volunteer in South Korea. Upon returning to grad school and finishing first my Master’s Degree and then a law degree, I began my pursuit of an international law career, one that, for the time being, didn’t have room for my fiction-writing ambitions. One thing I discovered in law school was that lawyers are writers, too, and my undergraduate and graduate school work had prepared me well.

For twenty years, then, I practiced international law, first with one of the world’s largest law firms, in Chicago, Singapore, and Los Angeles, and then with the World Bank in Washington, DC. Unquestionably, it was a fascinating career, one that gave me the opportunity to live overseas and travel extensively. My demanding profession and travel schedule, however, left me with little time to indulge my long-held writing ambition. There just wasn’t time.

Eventually, however, my ambitions
resurfaced. While I was living in Washington and still working at the
World Bank, making frequent trips to East Asia, I began experimenting
with fiction, crafting a novel set in Southeast Asia, drawing on my
experience there as a lawyer. Through that process, I discovered that
I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d read a lot, I’d had some
amazing experiences, and I was fine at writing legal documents, but
crafting fiction was a skill I hadn’t yet learned. To remedy that,
I enrolled in a fiction workshop at The Writer’s Center just
outside of Washington. Among other things, I saw the difference
between legal writing and creative writing. In many ways, this was a
turning point. I received feedback from a published novelist and many
other writing students, I gained confidence, and I began to see a
path forward.

When I finished the novel draft I
was working on—still a fulltime lawyer at that point, still
spending a lot of time on airplanes—I sent out query letters in an
effort to find an agent. That effort was not successful, but it too
was part of my preparation. I had a taste of how the industry worked,
how to engage with it, and how it might react to my writing.

So, in 2001, I decided, after much
deliberation but surprisingly little consultation with friends and
family, to take an enormous leap of faith: I quit my job and became a
fulltime writer. Although the career change seemed sudden, in
retrospect I realized I had been preparing for such a move for years,
beginning in college.

I then began to consider how I might
make the transition from lawyer to fiction writer. I consulted a
graduate school professor of mine, one who had been helpful in
guiding me toward my M.A. He advised applying to an M.F.A. program in
creative writing, not because I had any ambition to teach, but
because it would be my introduction to a community of writers at all
levels, my fellow beginners as well as more experienced practitioners
of the craft. Because a fulltime program was impracticable for me, I
enrolled in a low-residency M.F.A. program, and that’s where my
real learning began. It was then that I left my job and immersed
myself in the writing world. And, more importantly, I began to write

Preparation didn’t stop there. A
writer doesn’t have to do an M.F.A. to find a writing community and
there are learning opportunities everywhere. After I finished my
M.F.A. program, I attended several writers’ conferences, large and
small, in order to study with a variety of teachers and gain exposure
to more writers. I also began submitting my short stories to literary
magazines, learning in the process how to improve my writing. And I
worked with critique groups of my peers, other writers at similar
stages of their careers. I learned from their comments on my
manuscripts but I also learned by critiquing the work of other
writers, noticing the same kinds of mistakes I was making in my own

At this point, with my law practice
days long behind me, I’d say the transition is complete.

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