Suing for Peace

By Russell W. Johnson

When I’m not busy trying to be a writer, I make my living as a lawyer. I know, I know. How original? Another John Grisham wannabe. I admit it has become kind of a cliche given the number of attorneys turned author. Scott Turow, Richard North Patterson, Meg Gardiner, Theodora Goss, even Marcia Clark of O.J fame—just to name a few.

I always assumed the reason so many attorneys gravitated toward writing was because they needed an escape. The warm embrace of a fictional world where they were in control, rather than judges and juries. Plus, a lot of the skills translate. Lawyers do a ton of reading and writing, and most of us are, at some level, storytellers. But I believe there’s another correlation that might be less obvious. ADHD, attention -deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a condition that is almost as pervasive in the legal profession as addiction and depression. Some studies say the percentage of lawyers with an adult-ADHD diagnosis is more than two and a half times the national average.

This might seem counterintuitive. I mean, who has to pay attention to detail more than lawyers? Doctors? Pilots? Maybe. Though I would argue the pressure for perfection is even greater for attorneys, due to the adversarial nature of the job. Imagine being a doctor knowing that there is another physician out there who is just as smart and educated and motivated, who is attempting to kill the patient you are trying to heal. Or flying a plane while an equally qualified pilot does their level best to crash it.

That’s the kind of crucible that tends to sharpen the mind. And if you know anything about ADHD you may have guessed that it’s the adrenaline rush of this intensity that allows ADHDers to not only function in the legal profession, but often thrive. Pressure, it turns out, is the anecdote to our affliction. It’s why people with ADHD are typically prescribed some type of stimulant. Ritalin. Adderall. Or for self-medicators like me, eight cups of coffee a day. Otherwise our brains operate at a dopamine deficiency that causes us to flounder with the tasks of everyday life.

You can give me a list of simple, mundane chores to do or errands to run, and it doesn’t matter how much time I’ve got or how many times you follow up, I probably won’t get them done. My wife says I should have “Sorry, I forgot,” tattooed on my forehead. But, stick me into the pressure cooker of a lawsuit and all of a sudden I get super focused and highly productive, triaging through priorities and coming up with creative solutions.

Honestly, it’s kind of my happy place. The only time I’m really free from otherwise being a chronic procrastinator and worrier. Because when the shit goes down and normal people start losing their minds, that’s when I’m on my game. I actually tend to get really calm. It’s one of the superpowers of ADHD.

What does all that have to do with writing, though? Well, I don’t have any statistics on this but I’ve heard enough writers talk about their struggles to know that a significant percentage of them battle with ADHD as well. It kind of makes sense, if you think about it. Writers, after all, are the daydreamers who can build imaginary worlds and stumble through daily life while fictional characters chatter inside their heads. They’re the ones who get so jazzed about an idea they shut out the world long enough to turn it into art.

But most ADHD writers have to navigate their disorder without the same kind of high-pressure motivation lawyers experience. So what happens after the rush of that new idea fades, when you hit 20,000-words on the WIP and the doubt and imposter syndrome start to set in, or you come to a fork in the plotting road and aren’t sure which way to go? How does the ADHD writer maintain the productivity and discipline necessary to get a novel-length manuscript across the finish line?

The only consistent answer I have found comes from my experience as a lawyer, which is to have deadlines. Lots and lots of deadlines.

Litigation is all about deadlines. Miss an SOL—statute of limitations—and you’ll be the other kind of SOL. Get stuck in traffic and don’t show up to court on time and the judge might dismiss your case. File a brief or motion late and it’s too bad so sad. Any of the above happens and you could be the one getting sued by some asshole malpractice lawyer.

Most writers don’t have those kinds of consequences to whet their productivity so they’ve got to create their own deadlines. For example, I’ve known I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I vowed to publish a novel by the time I was 30, back when 30 sounded old. But I didn’t get a single word down until I was 33, because that was when we found out my wife was pregnant with our second child, and I told myself that if I didn’t write a book before that baby was born, I might never do it.

So I got out my calendar, marked off 100 days and set my alarm to get up early to bang out 1,000 words before work. At the end of that period I had a book. It was a terrible book, but it was written. I could print it out and actually hold it in my hands if I wanted to. Writing a book wasn’t just a pipe dream anymore. Getting published or selling a lot of books might still be, but not writing one. That part was now totally within my control.

A lot of time and words have gone by since then (I’m 47 now,) and in a lot of ways the writing has gotten easier. I’ve learned from a ton of mistakes and (hopefully) continually improved. But I still need self-imposed deadlines to make it happen.

Otherwise, I fall into the trap of waiting around for the words and ideas to form perfectly in my mind, as though passed down from on high, chiseled into stone tablets, before getting to work. Give me a whole day to write and I’ll piss the first half of it away on social media and surfing the web. Then, sometime after lunch when I still haven’t started writing because I’m waiting on inspiration, I’ll talk myself into chalking it up as a mental health day and either go to the gym or see what’s on Netflix.

But, if I’ve only got my lunch hour on weekdays, and an 80,000-word book I’ve made due in a year, with a self-imposed deadline to finish the first draft in five months, then I know I have to crank out 800 words during that 60 minutes. Once my butt is in the chair and fingers are hitting the keys under that kind of time pressure, the muse starts singing, the words start flowing, and I’m too busy to pay attention to that inner critic who thinks everything I do is crap.

Some of the words will be crap for sure. There will certainly be typos galore. But some of it will actually be pretty good, or at least a good start. Regardless, if there’s one piece of writing advice I’ve found to almost always be true, it’s that it is much easier to fix a bad page than to fill a blank one.

So I try to imagine myself as one of the old pulp writers pumping out genre stuff as fast as I can. Sometimes I don’t even think of myself as an author, so much as  a reporter bearing witness to the scenes in my head, or a stenographer recording characters’ conversations in chapters that read more like screenplays than a novel.

If I hit a spot where I need to do some research or fill in details I just leave myself a note to address it later. Because the second I start wordsmithing or googling for information, I risk getting sidetracked. If I’m not sure what should happen next in the story I just pick something and go with it, knowing that I can always change it later.

Occasionally, this leads to wrong turns that require more revision than I would like, but that’s okay. In my law practice I sometimes make errors as well. But after litigating for 20 years, I can safely say that the only mistakes I’ve really regretted have been ones of inaction or hesitation. Passing on a case I should have taken. Holding back when cross-examining an adverse witness. Meandering in analysis paralysis and not doing what I knew needed to be done.

Pretty much everything else can be fixed. In the law and in writing.

Russell W. Johnson

Russell W. Johnson is an attorney who got so sick of billable hours he started writing crime fiction. His short stories have won the Edgar Awards’ Robert L. Fish prize and the Pearl S. Buck Award for Writing for Social Change. THE MOONSHINE MESSIAH, Russell’s debut novel, also won the West Virginia Writers’ First Place prize for Book Length Fiction. The next novel in that series, THE MOUNTAIN MYSTIC, is due out on May 21, 2024 by Shotgun Honey.

2 responses to “Suing for Peace”

  1. I suspect that anyone who strives for greatness can benefit from a good dose of ADHD. That you have harnessed yours shows in your writing and productivity as an attorney, as a writer, and as a family man.

  2. I can totally relate here. I also create self-imposed deadlines which help. If I hit a wall and stop, I always have a million other things I want to write and since I am also an editor and book advocate/reviewer there’s plenty to keep busy. This is dangerous territory, however, because I’ve noticed these little projects are a means to procrastinate and I end up spending time on them rather than my book. Good essay!