Sunday, June 1, 2008

Jury Duty...Hassle or Writers Retreat?

If you're like me, the moment you go through the mail and see that official looking government notice with the red word SUMMONS across the front of it, your heart will go into panic mode. My first reaction was to shred it but after realizing that would be a federal offense I circled the dates on my calendar in red and prepared myself for the adult equivalent of getting sent to the Principal's office.

Why is jury duty such a drag? For me it's the fact that I have to travel on a bus to a courthouse in an area where you don't want to be after the sun goes down. As writers though, our job is to see things from all angles and while I'd much prefer to spend a day at the spa or at the beach, jury duty turned out to be a wonderful place for me to have hours of unencumbered WRITER time. How?

As I sat there on a bench designed for no more than fifteen minutes of comfortable sitting, I looked around the room and realized I was in a living, breathing character study. So I took out my notebook and wrote. I've never been good at writing on demand, but I forced myself to look around the room and describe people's expressions, clothing, and what I imagined might be going through their minds.

There were lots of business men, clearly in denial, setting up their workspace with laptops, blue-tooth (or is it teeth when talking in plural?) at the ready to accept calls from the outside world. One man received a phone call, packed up his briefcase and went into the glass jury booth. Moments later he was taking off his juror badge and heading out while the rest of us were left to wonder what excuse got him out of his civil duty? It was only 9:30AM.

Did I write for eight hours straight? No. I read. I worked on a manuscript I'm in the middle of revising. I ate lunch at possibly the world's slowest Burger King. And I continued to observe with my writer's mind all the places and people I came into contact with that day. The upside of jury duty for me is that until I got called for a judge's panel, I had to answer to NO ONE. No one needed a fresh pair of socks or a glass of juice. No one needed to be walked or fed. I didn't need to make any appointments or answer the door to receive a FedEx. Essentially I got to check out of my life for eight hours. And it was pretty cool.

Did I get anything out of my scribblings for the day? Not sure. It was definitely "fun writing". A trick that got my pen moving. And who knows what snippets my subconscious tucked away for a rainy day? There is one thing I desperately want to use in a future work, and I still don't think I have the description quite right. I'll end this entry with it.

There was a woman wearing a jacket that at one time might have been fashionable. The jacket was cocoa colored, with rows and rows of little Necco-wafer sized circles that fluttered when she walked. I couldn't make out what the jacket was made of. My first guess was leather, but the fabric had so much movement. Polyester? It looked too substantial for that. The one sentence I came up to describe it was this... "The jacket looked as though it could have been unearthed in a long forgotten trunk in the wardrobe department of a Star Wars movie." Good description? What if my reader doesn't know about Star Wars? Or Necco wafers? What then? So I forced myself to dig deeper, get basic. I'm still working on it, but I promise, I WILL use that jacket some day.

Or maybe I already have?

So the next time you get that summons in the mail, wipe the sweat from your brow, pack yourself a notebook and some good reading and take advantage of what my be the most perfect writers retreat of them all. Jury duty. And you don't even need an SCBWI membership to get in.


  1. I have a few more years to go before the dreaded summons arrives in my mailbox again. But I totally identify with finding the best in those moments of forced "time-outs."

    I had my writers notebook out while waiting in the emergency room a year or so ago. I watched the staff deal with a homeless man. They were very gentle and kind as they worked to place him in a shelter. It was when they left him alone that I hit writer's pay dirt. As he rummaged through his bag, he pulled out a can of Lysol and sprayed the rest of the contents. He then recapped the can, closed up the bag, and waited patiently for his ride.

    Funny. I remember him with total clarity, yet can't remember which kid (or was it my mother) who needed the emergency treatment.

  2. I haven't been sentenced to jury duty, ever. Maybe I should volunteer simply to get eight hours of uninterrupted time. Wait a minute. I don't need to leave my house for that, in three short months, I will be an empty-nester and time will be mine.

    Now, I find my most creative time is when I'm driving. A few years ago my father gave me a voice activated recorder to use, because I almost wrecked the car while reaching for a pen and paper to write a BRILLIANT idea down. But I have since misplaced the recorder. I admit that I didn't use it much. Hearing my voice coming back at me wierded me out. Now, if a brilliant idea comes to me when no pen is handy, or when writing would be the equivalent to talking on the cellphone, I just go over the idea/scene/character/whatever in my mind again and again and again so I don't lose it. Most often it works, but most often, by the time I get home and get the idea down on paper, it doesn't seem quite as brilliant as it was when I was alone in my car.

  3. Yes, yes, all places provide fodder for the writing brain. Every year when I work at our church rummage sale, I compose word portraits of customers, and the clothes they choose. Where are they going to wear them? What stories!

    Jury duty can be the same . . . as long as you don't get called for a case and have to concentrate on the facts, ma'am, just the facts. Of course you could also get a play out of that experience a la "Twelve Angry Men."

  4. I haven't been called for jury duty lately but I have been called for child rearing--for the next, egads, 12 years! Fortunately, I get lots of fodder for my writer's notebook from my kids. I'm thinking about writing a play called "One Angry Mom." ;-)

  5. What a great way to think about jury duty. I was on a case a few years ago and was a mess because I had little kids and they wouldn't let me off. My problem now is that I can't write much at all by hand- can't read my writing, and my hand hurts if I write too long. Bring along my laptop? Somehow it takes the privacy and spontaneity out of it. Great post, Robin.