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Monday, April 2, 2012

The Paper

I called it Ayatollah for a day or two, and then abandoned the urge to give it a name at all for want of one that reflected its truly sinister nature. It was just as well, as a name would have granted the thing an unearned voice apart from my own and a power with which it might have seized even greater control of my life. After that, I just called it The Paper.

The Paper is a treatise on an obscure and all but doomed provision of the Affordable Care Act that would have offered cheap long-term care insurance to people who might eventually have used the money to stay at home and delay the need for an expensive government-funded bed in a nursing home. More importantly for my purposes as a law student, it represents an opportunity to fulfill my upper-division writing requirement.  It has also robbed me of my even temper, temporarily displacing my congenial disposition with an uncharacteristic surliness.

As a houseguest, The Paper was not altogether intrusive in the beginning. It slept a lot. Occasionally, it would stir and rise up blinking with a certain listless hunger, but then it would curl back onto itself and resettle into a gray mass with its face against the wall. In three weeks, though, it started to smell. In four, it turned on me in earnest. I would come home to find it had eaten my food, rummaged through my closets and rearranged my furniture.

 I procrastinated, and then I tried to bargain with it. When that didn’t work, I procrastinated some more. And then I went back and tried to kill it with kindness. But it had these antennae that were sensitive to fear. It would curl a lip up over its fangs and grin, knowing that each day it was gathering a strength and intelligence that outmatched my own. At night, I would chain it to the kitchen table. It would chew through its restraints and wake me with a boot on my throat.

As legal discourse goes, 26 pages (33 if you count endnotes, and why wouldn’t you?) is nothing. But it’s not the kind of writing where you invent people out of whole cloth and leave them to spin out their destinies on the page, nor is it the rough draft of history that constitutes a news story. Here, there is no truth without accuracy, and close enough is not nearly close enough. The endnotes alone demand a precision of format that would challenge a watchmaker. In the end, there is nothing to do but to accept the fact that it must be done. You wade in and wrestle back the tentacles until only one of you is standing.

I admit I am given to hyperbole. I understood I might have employed an unwarranted degree of melodrama when people with whom I have little more than a nodding elevator acquaintance in the building where I work started to inquire as to how The Paper was going. That can mean only one thing. At some point, in a desperate moment that didn’t even commit itself to memory, I have pinned a virtual stranger to an elevator wall and articulated the injustices of law school.  I decided to keep it closer to home. I took to texting a friend who was embroiled in her own writing project. We exchanged progress reports several times a day, making vague promises to pop corks on fine champagne in the event we managed to meet on the other side of our papers.

It all reminded me of a past life cobbling cryptic notes into what used to be described as a magazine-length piece and the angst that would always accompany the process. The memory dates to a time before law school, if there really was such a time, peopled with journalistic ghosts who still occupy the fringes of my life, but whose disengagement from all things law-related renders them momentarily irrelevant. My habit when I sat down to write was to stare at the blinking cursor for a time, and then turn to the colleague who occupied the desk just to the left of mine and plaintively call his name. “Let me guess,” he would mutter with a mouthful of bologna sandwich. “This is the one that’s going to kill you.”

As it turned out, this was not the one that would kill me. The day has come, as it always does, when you fling open the windows, wave a little sage around the room, breathe in the sunshine and find that all is well again. The Paper is fully formed, or as fully formed as it is likely to be, ready to go forth and either stand or fall on its own merits. For now, it lies in the hands of the professor and the three classmates he assigned to critique it. For all I know, they are at this moment yanking down its pants and stuffing it into a locker. After the way The Paper treated me, I am not even sure I will leap to its defense. That’s what I call justice.