Write Better Than a Second-Rate Poet

Divorce is the topic in Lorrie Moore’s short story “Paper Losses,” and in this story the protagonist, Kit (“Katherine” in the petition) struggles with the fact that her husband has, figuratively, turned into a space alien.

In this story, you get Kit’s perspective—including her take on the words “irretrievably broken.” She asks herself, “What second-rate poet had gotten hold of the divorce laws?”

Here’s how not to be a second-rate poet when you write.

The Words ‘Irretrievably Broken’ Mean Nothing

“What second-rate poet had gotten hold of the divorce laws?”

It’s a funny line because Moore touches on the very problem the legal profession has when it comes to language and writing.

When you become a lawyer, legal language becomes your language, the language of your profession, and you begin to speak and write in legalese, mimicking all those who have gone before.

In “Paper Losses,” Kit relates how she’ll find herself in a courtroom, forced to confirm that her marriage is irretrievably broken, though she rebels inside.

She asks, “Why ‘irretrievably broken’ like a songbird’s wing? Why not ‘Do you find this person you were married to, and who is now sitting next to you in the courtroom, a total asshole?’ That would suffice, and be more accurate.”

You don’t need to use the words “total asshole,” but you should avoid unexamined language at all costs.

Solving the Problem

The problem starts with legal language used too casually—like “irretrievably broken,” for instance—in your legal writing, assuming that it actually means something and will be persuasive to your audience, whether that’s a judge or a client.

In this, do no more than fulfill statutory requirements. Use the phrases you must on the divorce petition. That’s fine. It’s doing your job.

But when you really think about it, and without consulting statutory definitions or otherwise, can you say what that phrase really means?

The truth is that the words “irretrievably broken” mean nothing.

The Love Letter

Let’s flip this thing on its head for a second.

If you were writing a love letter rather than a divorce petition, and you used the obligatory words “I love you” but didn’t back them up with why, the message would lose its emotional weight, its authenticity, and you as the writer might start to look a little creepy.

Your beloved would start wondering what you really mean by those words.

Do you genuinely love her for who she is?

Or do you love her in an obsessive, I’m-a-stalker sort of way?

Or is this just a sort of middling love, the type that might end in divorce?

In Moore’s story, Kit still hoped for love with her husband, even though he’d turned into a “space alien,” a man who built model rockets all evening in the basement, who wouldn’t look her in the eye for months, and who turned out to have been cheating.

In the courtroom, with the “robed, robotic judge” and the “winking stenographer,” Kit found that her marriage had been reduced to a “chicken franchise she had made a muck of,” something she couldn’t own again for six months, the words “irretrievably broken” stuck in her throat.

And Kit, some lawyer’s client, resents it.

If you want to be authentic, if you want to write better than a second-rate poet, your words have to mean something.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robaround/3778610459/)


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  • I am certain that the terms “irretrievably broken” have a real meaning regarding the relationship, even if the feelings of one of the parties centered on resentment and animosity, the likes of which I would be seeking to mute, not amplify, were I pleading a cause of action.

    A great deal in pleading depends on what sort of relief one seeks, not merely in terms of the final order but who the fact finder is and when the relief is to be given. Further, states differ as to whether they mandate notice pleading (minimal prima facie case per the federal rules), fact pleading (Florida, I am told) or something in between such as my state, Maryland. To indulge literary ambitions in a federal pleading could be a mistake when parsimony is both expected and tactically more advantageous.

    • Chris Bradley

      You make a great point, Bruce, and it serves to give my post some valid counter-argument and nuance. Ultimately, in the federal pleading situation you describe, as in others, you don’t want to sacrifice doing what’s good for the case for the sake of literary ambition. Although I’m sure that legal writing generally could stand to benefit from more of it. Thanks for your comment!