In a recent interview, I heard Aaron Sorkin, creator of the TV dramas West Wing and Newsroom, describe what he does as “reproduce phonetically” what real smart people say. The suggestion is that he does not really have the foundational knowledge of a truly erudite person, he is simply good at capturing how those who are properly educated sound. As applied to Sorkin, this description may be unduly self-deprecating. I do not presume to judge. But the phenomenon he described in such catchy terms struck me as familiar.
First, this notion that one can be gifted at “reproducing phonetically” utterances that correctly reflect knowledge that the writer him- or herself does not actually possess is a good way to describe one of Shakespeare’s gifts—especially if one starts with the premise that the guy who wrote all of those plays was the uneducated fellow from Stratford named W.S. But even if “Shakespeare” was really the highly educated, well-traveled Earl of Oxford, as some believe, the author of the plays did a remarkable job of “reproducing phonetically” distinct characters possessing a range of educations and practical skill sets, only some of which could have been obtained by the author through actual life experience.
Second, this notion of “reproducing phonetically” the sounds made by others who actually earned their foundational knowledge through laborious, practical acquisition is what I frequently do when writing briefs—particularly briefs involving legal issues in doctrinal areas with which I do not have prior experience. In other words, I have been fortunate to avoid the kind of narrow specialization that characterizes some contemporary law practices. But even if a lawyer becomes a litigator who works exclusively, say, on employment or patent or family or commercial disputes, litigation itself always involves people. And the fact-patterns that people generate are infinitely variable. Therefore, even if a lawyer only deals with disputes implicating one doctrinal area of law, the lawyer is forever encountering new issues. Not just variations on set themes, but legal issues that are truly new, even to a seasoned lawyer. When that lawyer is then called upon to brief these issues for a court, the lawyer has to figure out how to sound like someone who is profoundly well-versed in that subject.
How does a person do that? How does a lawyer write like Sorkin or Shakespeare, such that the lawyer “reproduces phonetically” the sounds someone would make who was a true scholar of a discrete issue?
At the very least, persons who hope to pull off this feat need to:
· Admit to their ignorance;
· Engage in some serious cramming;
· Pay keen attention to nuance;
· Remain profoundly insecure and thus self-conscious about how they might be misusing terms of art or missing some logical gap; and
· Entreat someone with practical knowledge of the subject to vet the enterprise to ensure that it rings true.
Writing (and acting) that is mere mimicry is annoying—and unconvincing. But part of being a persuasive writer seems universal, whatever the genre: one has to commit to reproducing sounds phonetically that, until the writing project arose, the writer’s own life experiences did not equip him or her to utter. The challenge is to avoid “faking” knowledge of a subject so poorly that one ends up looking like an ass. See, e.g., Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As Puck explains:
My mistress with a monster is in love.
Near to her close and consecrated bower,
While she was in her dull and sleeping hour,
A crew of patches, rude mechanicals,
That work for bread upon Athenian stalls,
Were met together to rehearse a play
Intended for great Theseus' nuptial-day.
The shallowest thick-skin of that barren sort,
Who Pyramus presented, in their sport
Forsook his scene and enter'd in a brake
When I did him at this advantage take,
An ass's nole I fixed on his head:
Anon his Thisbe must be answered,
And forth my mimic comes.
Being a “mimic” is what the “rude mechanicals” do, not what good actors or writers—be they playwrights or legal writers—do. The former become butts of jokes; the latter can elevate a culture’s consciousness, transform an entire language, or at least earn a decent living.