Press: Interview With Ellen Swain About Leaving Law Teaching Full Time to Pursue Writing on Darling Hill
When a New Year begins, do you get the urge to overhaul your life? Well, brace yourself for change because this Darling Hill interview is going to kick your resolutions into action.
Meet Ellen Swain, simply one of the nicest lawyers around. Fueled by her interests in caring for the underdog, storytelling and justice, lawyer turned playwright and novelist, Ellen Swain, has discovered that if you don’t follow your dreams, “It’ll haunt you until you do.”
Burned out from long hours as a public defender, Ellen Swain, joined the faculty of Vermont Law School, her alma mater. At Vermont Law School, she passionately taught criminal law and ran the school’s academic support program until she relocated to the San Francisco Bay area. Now, a full-time writer, Swain dishes to Darling Hill about life, lawyering and pursuing dreams.
Darling Hill: What are you working on now [since your move and career transition]?
Swain: I relocated to the San Francisco Bay area in July 2007 and started writing full-time. My first play [Jailhouse Conversion], a one act, in which I played the female lead, won first prize at the Fringe of Marin Festival in San Rafael, Ca., this fall. Jailhouse Conversion is about a federal public defender whose client persuades her he’s holding her hostage in the jail cell. It will be staged in San Francisco in March, and I have plans to expand it to a full-length play.
I’m focusing most of my energy on finishing up a novel involving a murder set in northern New England, which I hope to complete in the next few months. Then I’ll turn my sights to the next novel and start researching a play set in Venice. I write short humor essays, too, mostly to amuse myself.
Darling Hill: Why did you decide to turn your focus to writing?
Swain: It’s really a love story. Before we married, my husband, a trial lawyer, lived in the bay area while I lived in Vermont, and we commuted (imagine the frequent flyer miles). We decided it would be best for both of us to live in the bay area. I planned to start a job search, when my husband surprised me by suggesting that I write full-time.
He built me a writing studio overlooking our garden and encouraged me to finish my novel, and supported me as I took writing classes and worked with a writing coach. He believed in the strength and truth of my dream to write and never second guessed me, even if I spent a day organizing the closets or rearranging the spice drawer, when the writing wouldn’t flow, which helped to fuel me to hole myself away to write fiction. He’s always my first reader and performed one line in my play.
Life is messy and people are a mix of good and bad, selfish and caring impulses, so what happens when those mixed motivations run into the black and white of the legal system? I love exploring that question.
- Ellen Swain
Darling Hill: Does your law degree and legal experience add value to your writing?
Swain: My legal training and career has shaped who I am, as a person and as a writer. I explore the human side of the abstract themes of justice and crime and try to make sense out of them for myself. Life is messy and people are a mix of good and bad, selfish and caring impulses, so what happens when those mixed motivations run into the black and white of the legal system? I love exploring that question.
I’ve been blessed with an interesting legal career, and I find inspiration in what I’ve seen and what I read about in legal documents. As a playwright I draw upon my skills as a trial lawyer to answer the same questions I had to answer when I presented a criminal defendant’s case: how can I present this character, how can I hold the audience’s attention, and how will the characters interact with one another?
Also, lawyers take a great deal of heat for being workaholics, but there’s a positive side to learning how to work very hard and to work when you don’t feel like it. Creative people struggle to find that discipline, and I’m tremendously grateful for the work ethic my legal career gave me.
Darling Hill: Any regrets about leaving the law?
Swain: Sometimes I miss it. I love the intellectual challenge of criminal law, the drama of the courtroom work and of teaching, and the collaboration. I loved working with my clients and the students, really being part of their lives. And I miss my colleagues, both in the public defender office, and at the law school. I liked the feeling of being part of a cause, part of a mission.
Having friends in the trenches dissolves the loneliness of work requiring concentration. Writing is solitary, and there are rare opportunities to collaborate, and those have become really precious to me. I’ve had to put a great deal of time and effort into making “play dates” with friends and to develop a community of writers in my life, which remains a work in progress.
Darling Hill: Any plans to go back to full or part-time practice?
Swain: I drive past both Alcatraz Island and San Quentin Prison regularly and think of getting involved in the criminal justice system again. I feel like my legal training comes with a responsibility to give back, to help give access to people who don’t otherwise have access to the legal system or quality legal services. I had planned on attending a training to write death penalty appellate briefs in February, but I realized it would take too much of my time and focus right now, but I’m not ruling it out in the future.
Darling Hill: What have you discovered about life, the law, or yourself by following your dreams of writing?
Swain: I’ve learned a great deal about myself, most of which has been pretty humbling. Following your heart is tough business, and there isn’t a great deal of external approval. I actually had a colleague tell me she thought I’d lost my mind, when I resigned my faculty appointment. And the old tapes crop up, “you’re book will never get published and don’t just sit around selfishly writing useless stories,” all of which forced me to see how much I depended on the approval of others to live my life and gave me an opportunity to break that pattern and care more about what I feel, to let go of my fears, and to listen to my heart.
It’s also been really freeing to be a beginner writer. As lawyers we’re so busy being perfect all of the time, understanding every aspect of the law and anticipating any challenges or arguments, which becomes tiring and limiting. There’s no room to make a mistake or to explore a new idea or just to be human. I have that freedom in my life in spades right now, and I’m very grateful for it.
Darling Hill: What advice, if any, can you give other lawyers who are interested in freelance writing or pursuing some other nagging non-law related interest?
Swain: Follow it. It’ll haunt you until you do. Find a class, in person or on-line, or find a buddy who wants to do the same to support you. And watch for the naysayers in your life. They’ll kill your dreams if you let them.
To learn more about Ellen Swain and to follow her writing career, click here.