When I first heard Eric Bibb’s Prison of Time a week or so ago, something about the lyrics fascinated me. I put my car’s CD player on repeat and listened to it eight or nine times in a row on my way home from a meeting in Seattle. I only repeat a new song in this fashion when its melody is entrancing and its lyrics are trying to tell me a truth of some kind. As soon as I arrived home that day, I studied Mr. Bibb’s lyrics to see what they were trying to tell me. This post is my interpretation of their message.
When I was working, I faced my retirement with suspicion, wondering what it was I would do when the time came. I’ve always been a busy person who kept working at jobs as if I were an accomplished plate spinner plying his skills on stage. I even have a name for the tactic: “walking the high wire.” I achieved a substantial ability to walk that high wire; it served me well during my time as a practicing lawyer.
The practice of law is not a 9 to 5 job. Clients’ worries and problems do not pay any attention to the clock. As a member of a service industry, a lawyer needs to be available whenever crises affect his client, whenever the client’s anxiety becomes too much for the client to bear alone. And if you want the privilege of serving those clients and the freedom to be yourself and practice as you like that comes with having them, then you must go out into the community in which you live and work and be seen. The best way to be seen is to give something back to the community that nourishes you, and that requires more hours of service dedicated to things that compensate your soul rather than your pocketbook.
To live a successful partner’s life in a law firm requires many long hours. If you enjoy a life of service, those hours are not burdensome. They are only a burden for those lawyers who want the job to be ruled by the clock, for those lawyers who believe that, because they went to law school and have three more years of education than the average college graduate, they are somehow owed a living. There is a place for such folks in the profession, but it is not always a happy place. Their place depends upon the other lawyers who provide them work; this dependence generates anxiety arising from their lack of control over their flow of work and their place in the firm, an anxiety often accompanied by mental health and substance abuse problems.
When I began my career, it seemed to me that it was better to use the energy that would otherwise be wasted on such anxiety to live my professional life to the fullest. That’s not to say that I was the best or most successful lawyer in Seattle; but it is to say that I held my own and was successful in accordance with, and in adherence to, my personal standards and ethics.
As I neared the time when I would have to make the leap from the cliff into the ocean of retirement, I began to listen and watch my mentor and friend, Bob Weiss. He constantly reminded me by his actions and words that retirement is best when one indulges his passions to the fullest. For Bob, those passions were writing, traveling, and serving his community; he wrote and published plays, poetry, a memoir, a book of short stories, he got involved in a local music series in his home town, both as a sponsor and an attendee, he kept in touch with his mentees and friends and continued to serve them as role model, confidante and consigliere, and he traveled the world searching for knowledge rather than relaxation. He taught me that indulging your passions in retirement is not sinful; indeed, it’s the key to success.
So when I retired, I decided to write the novel I have always longed to write. It wasn’t so much that I had a specific subject on which I wished to expound; it was more that I wanted to see if I could write something — anything — that would hold together and tell a story complete with plot and an engaging narrative. My goal was not publication – although I have discovered that the characters in your novel become friends who want their story to be read by others. But whether or not Fortunate Son is ever published, the writing of it has informed and delighted the first three years of my retirement: all of the long hours I’ve spent on its manuscript have been times of learning and growth; all of the money I’ve spent on editors has been well spent due to the education I received; all of the hard work of writing has been time spent lost in the delights and wonders of a newly revealed world. There is nothing finer or more fulfilling than pulling finished product from thin air by the use of mental muscle alone. Gandalf and his staff have nothing on me!
Mr. Bibb caught this idea in his lyrics. Not that he has slowed down much. I believe the album in which Prison of Time appears (The Happiest Man In The World) is his third album in the last year. But I suspect that music is his passion and his profession, and there are no boundaries — no cliffs — between his professional life and retirement. Some are lucky that way; the rest of us must jump and find a way to swim.
In some ways, Mr. Bibb and I are not so different. I wrote extensively during my legal career — contracts, letters, briefs, articles, and all the other forms of writing demanded of a busy lawyer. But legal writing has its own rules and rhythms, and I knew I would have to unlearn them if I wanted to write fiction well. So I began this blog in an effort to learn a different writing style, only to find, when I retired and began writing Fortunate Son in earnest, that though I had a head start, I still had a long way to swim.
Fortunate Son is done now — as “done” as a novel can be before a publisher gets its hands on it. I arrived at that finish line two weeks ago when I realized I was incapable of reading the manuscript again after having read and revised it so many times. I have no idea if the novel will ever be published; I have no wish to self-publish and pester my friends to buy the product, so will content myself with the seemingly never-ending search for a literary agent. The search for an agent requires extensive writing in and of itself, since each agent has a personal style and your query letter (as the publishing industry calls your elevator speech on behalf of your work) to him or her must take that personal style into account. But writing an endless string of query letters in search of the ineffable agent is not enough to fulfill anyone, so I have begun work on another novel and have an idea and notes for a third.
While publication of Fortunate Son remains elusive, it was never my true goal. My real goal was to challenge myself, to see what I would be able do, to see if I could produce a work in which I could take personal pride. My real goal was to indulge my passion for writing to the utmost. I have done this to my satisfaction, and publication would simply be the icing on the cake I’ve baked.
Baking that cake has been my key to the prison of time.
(Originally published at Rumors of Far Despairs - www.humptulips.org)
Steve Ellis retired in 2013 after a long career profiled in the June 2011 Bar Bulletin. He is a past president of the King County Bar Foundation.
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