Below is the first of several excerpts the Atlasphere will publish from Erika Holzer’s new book, Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher.
In this chapter, Holzer explains how and why she switched from practicing law to writing fiction, and describes the generous help Ayn Rand provided in that process.
That’s not exactly how any adults in my family ever put it, but given the home environment I grew up in — lawyers, lawyers, nothing but lawyers — they probably would have said, at the very least, “stick to the law” if they’d had any inkling of my early attraction to fiction writing.
My roots are in upstate New York where my dad was a small-town single practitioner who’d gone directly from high school to Albany Law School, had practiced for over sixty years, and had done well enough to put three of his four children through law school.
As a kid I would hang out at his office (grade school being directly across the street) and pad my allowance by doing everything from clerical tasks to proofreading of contracts and wills. He got a big kick out of letting me play fly-on-the-wall during client consults — after which he’d interrogate me to see what I had learned.
From time to time I would accompany him to the county courthouse in another city where I’d help him file papers or sit in court while he saw some judge and talked to other lawyers or, once in awhile, argue a case!
Evenings and weekends weren’t much of a respite. There was always plenty of give and take across the family dinner table, and it wasn’t just about my dad’s law practice.
We argued politics all the time (I learned, early on, that everybody had a right to an opinion, though not necessarily an informed one), and whatever controversial legal issues or sensational trials on a national level made the local papers became topics of heated debate.
I did take some private time to “play” at writing, as I thought of it then. I can no longer remember what ended up in my waste basket and was quickly transferred to a garbage can (no shredders in those days), but my first “serious” attempt was when I was twelve and had the summer off before entering high school.
I called it The Secret Room: a laboriously handwritten, forty-one-page short story with a crudely rendered crayon cover of a blonde girl surreptitiously approaching an open door, her trusty Toy Fox Terrier hovering protectively behind — an inspired knockoff of a Nancy Drew detective yarn. (How I admired that girl’s daring and efficacy!)
Never one to let anything go to waste, I submitted a somewhat neater handwritten version of the story to satisfy my Freshman English requirement in high school and was ecstatic when it garnered an “A.”
But there’s no question that I was programmed for the legal profession. One step removed from my immediate family was an assortment of favorite uncles and an aunt — all lawyers — who were constantly filling my ears with stories about the law. I was also grateful to my father.
An old-school Italian in many ways, he had defied tradition when it came to his daughters, encouraging both of us to get a higher education. (In my case, that meant attending law school right after college.)
Not only did I appreciate my dad’s attitude, but I welcomed the opportunity to escape small-town existence. Ignoring signs both in high school and subsequently in college of a definite pull in the direction of creative writing, I developed a game plan for “having a real profession.”
Specializing in labor relations at Cornell University, followed by a Juris Doctor degree at New York University, I took a job with a prominent mid-sized labor law firm in Manhattan with the idea of becoming an arbitrator.
After a few years, I succumbed to on-the-job boredom. I told myself it was my labor relations specialty that had gone sour, not the practice of law itself. That’s when I decided to practice constitutional and appellate law with my husband (whom I had met in law school and married the day of our last exam).
It was about this time that I enrolled in all the available courses in Objectivism. Whenever Ayn Rand, whom I did not yet know, was on hand for the Q&A, I found myself going into alert mode if she was talking about writing issues, as opposed to the purely philosophical. Pretty soon I was doing “practice pieces” in my spare time, the idea being to create a scene, invest it with a purpose, and, well, practice.
One night I shared my growing pile with a curious friend. After showering me with lavish praise, he offered to show my pieces to Ayn Rand, with whom he happened to be on a first-name basis. It was an act of generosity I shall never forget.
Ayn Rand’s generosity took the form of inviting me to her apartment to discuss — or, more precisely, to dissect — some of my pieces.
I had provided her with copies of these pieces well in advance of the evening but was in such a heightened state of excitement that I’d neglected to bring anything to write on! I ended up sponging off Ayn, scribbling away like a madwoman on the three-holed, lined paper she’d handed me. Acutely aware that I was on borrowed time, I silently cursed my lack of foresight in not having brought along a tape recorder.
Among the pieces, my hands-down favorite — a seven-paragraph, law-related scene — turned out to be the one Ayn liked best, and her critique was typical of how she handled all the pieces: explain why what I had written worked (when it did) and what techniques I’d used, even when I hadn’t always known quite why I was using them.
I had written: “To convey the tension and suspense in the air as the U. S. Supreme Court convenes for a re-hearing of oral argument on the question: Is the draft unconstitutional?” I had already told Ayn, as a sort of preface to the piece, that my husband and I were then in the process of challenging the constitutionality of the draft in the federal courts — in all probability, a Quixotic venture — and that we did not expect to reach our cherished goal: the Supreme Court of the United States. (We didn’t.)
This led to a sort of literary preface of her own. “The idea of doing a practice piece from a real-life situation where you anticipate the pain of losing, yet are able to project the possibility of winning, is an excellent psychological device,” Ayn enthused. “People usually do the reverse — avoid the positive in any situation where they expect the negative. Good for both of you!”
Then she proceeded to give me line-by-line feedback of everything in the scene I had done right(!) as she pinpointed the metaphors and adjectives that worked.
I had written about seats filled by those:
who had spent a lonely vigil the night before on the courthouse steps.
“Much more effective,” Ayn observed, “than saying people had spent the night waiting for the proceedings to begin.”
Pickets marching outside, “their lips eerily mouthing a monotonous chant that could no more break through the barrier of soundproofed walls than he had been able to pierce the soundproofed minds of the opposition...”
“This comes across as very authentic, Erika. The word ‘eerily’ in regard to the monotonous chanting is just how it would feel seeing those moving lips but hearing no sound. You go on to describe the crowd as “small, smug and slightly amused” — a good combination of adjectives. Writers have to be very careful in selecting adjectives in a string like this. The idea is to be non-repetitive, and you did that well.”
I had described the courthouse guards as:
...two rows of uniformed resistance.
This description gave the reader “a telling visual image which has the added value of capturing the way the lawyer protagonist would have been aware of those guards.”
I was particularly proud of how I’d described my protagonist as he was entering the courthouse:
He knew he should have expected it; in courtroom after courtroom, as they had wearily worked their way up to the Supreme Court, appealing every step of the way from evasive half-truths and self-righteously delivered non-sequiturs....
“An excellent sum-up of the appellate process,” Ayn told me. “Not too much and not too technical. Just what’s called for. You not only indicate the legal mechanism. You underscore the hard work involved, as well — a projection of the struggle.”
When she complimented me on my “very good foreshortening” throughout the piece, I swallowed my pride and asked her what she meant. “You’ve grasped — at least subconsciously — how to insert a great deal of meaning in very few words,” she said with the hint of a smile.
“You give the reader what he needs to know without making it obvious. That’s what good exposition is all about. Each of your seven paragraphs convey a single theme, all of them from your lawyer protagonist’s point of view,” she noted approvingly. “You’ve managed to slip into these paragraphs a load of information without burdening your narrative.”
She zeroed in on what I’d thought of as simply an interesting juxtaposition — the lawyer sizing up the opposition:
...as if they believed he would not show up; as if they had finally faced the fact that he might win.
‘An excellent identification of the enormous evasion involved in expecting the lawyer not to show up for his important hearing,” Ayn enthused, “immediately followed by your identifying what the spectators were evading: that they cannot permit themselves to think he might win. What’s especially effective here is how you make the reader do all the concluding.”
I was hoping two other formulations that I was especially fond of would catch her eye:
...a glance, like a warm handshake
the concealed door behind the Bench burst open with a muffled crack.
They did. Ayn characterized both of them as “eloquent.”
As to the practice piece overall, Ayn touched on one more area I hadn’t given much thought to: pacing. Mine was good, she said. “Very appropriate, in view of whose perspective the scene was in: the lawyer’s.” She went on to point out that a shorter, faster pace would not have been as effective. “It would have detracted from your overall purpose, which was to convey tension. Your entire draft scene does exactly that.”
Her critique of my other practice pieces was a mixed bag: a number of glaring mistakes, some formulations that didn’t work. This was tempered with high praise for capturing a certain mood or conveying a sense of high drama or — most satisfying of all, because I’d worked so darn hard at it — successfully capturing a sense of motion.
“A difficult thing to convey, motion,” Ayn said, no doubt thinking, as I was, of the John Galt Line. (Wisely, I had taken a much easier route by describing a young girl on horseback.)
The one major gaffe occurred in my legal scene. I had a line about “faces that dissolved into fear, slithered into malice, or exploded in panic.” Ayn nailed me on it. “Make your metaphors real, Erika. ‘Dissolving’ into fear works, but ‘slithering’ into malice is a bit of a stretch. What you’re getting at here, I think, is furtiveness. (That was what I was getting at.) As for ‘exploding’ into panic — much too violent. A good way to put your metaphors to the test is to try them out in front of a mirror.”
It was time to leave. I could have stayed forever.
We shook hands at the door. “Good premises,” Ayn said, warmth in her smile.
She didn’t say, “Congratulations, Erika,” but I saw that in her smile, too, along with the warmth.
First thing I did when I got home was stand in front of a full-length mirror and put heart and soul into “slithering.” A complete bust. Going into snake mode, not surprisingly, had translated only into body movement; snakes don’t have facial expressions! Next I tried various forms of detonation as I thrust my face mere inches from the mirror. I defy anyone to “explode in panic.” I exploded in laughter.
I’ve been putting Ayn’s mirror test to good use ever since.
Looking back at this first encounter with Ayn Rand, at a time when I had no conscious literary aspirations and was not yet her lawyer, I realize that the mentoring process had already begun.
Ayn provided me with so many valuable insights during my formative practice-piece stage (I would do other such pieces as our relationship developed) that I regard what she taught me as analogous to skipping half a dozen grades in school or whizzing past “beginner” status to “intermediate.”
Feedback of the kind Ayn Rand gave me that evening, whether positive or negative, is of incalculable importance to the neophyte writer. It enables him — it enabled me — to bring submerged writing premises to the surface.
And take it from one who’s been there, it is a lot more efficient to grow and improve and modify and correct — to be in control of your material — when you’re working on a conscious level, as opposed to what Ayn Rand sometimes referred to as your “sub-basement.”
My practice pieces had an added bonus — a realization that didn’t hit me until many years later. I’d had a lot of fun doing them, in large part because, at the time, I had felt a complete lack of pressure.
This sense of freedom came from the knowledge that I could strike out in any direction I fancied: a brief paragraph here, a few pages there. Nothing so daunting as a novel, a screenplay, or even a short story. Just painterly strokes and delicious musings.
Playing around in this fashion can build confidence — an excellent prelude to more ambitious work.
Once, that is, you’ve unlocked whatever subconscious premises you may have about wanting to be a fiction writer in the first place.
For me, that would come later: a gradual process that became increasingly obvious, thanks to those invaluable late-night sessions on aesthetics.
It was Ayn Rand who — unknowingly at first — knowingly later on, I suspect — showed me where I should plant both feet.
Erika Holzer is a lawyer-turned-writer who has published two novels, Double-Crossing and Eye for an Eye, as well as numerous articles, essays, and reviews. Additional information about her writings can be found on her web site, at www.erikaholzer.com. She lives near Palm Springs with her husband, Hank Holzer.