Letters from the Dorm: How law school is helping to improve my writing skills

A student’s exposure to the legal profession provides the perfect opening for a renewed sense of excitement about blank paper

April Xiaoyi Xu |

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Mesmerised by the fictional characters, I was soon creating my own stories.

My writing life began before I could technically write. There I sat, in the back seat of a rental car, pointing at the world outside the window with my then-tiny fingers and persistently asking questions about anything and everything that caught my attention. 

By the age of six, I was fortunate enough to see various parts of the mainland, South Korea, Australia, and the US. While cultural and social differences fascinated me the most, the vast majority of mundane objects would also pique my interest. As a result, I soon earned myself the nickname of “100,000 questions.” 

Those probably proved to be a bit much for my young, though extremely patient, parents. The most effective strategy to halt my relentless flow of questions, if only temporarily, turned out to be storytelling.

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Mesmerised by the new world that each fictional character opened up for me, I was soon creating my own stories. This marked the beginning of my curious relationship with blank paper, sometimes conveniently placed by my bed. I would doodle for hours non-stop, until I was ready to gather my thoughts and orally share them with others for feedback. My mother, realising that I had not learned to write yet, dutifully captured those fleeting moments by writing down my stories and poems, so that her more mature, more critical, yet still story-loving daughter could one day revisit them. Ever since then, I have taken the greatest pleasure in life from seeking my own sources of inspiration and turning them into story materials. 

As a child, I was quite introverted, partly due to my upbringing that demanded a constant, seamless transition between Mandarin and southern Chinese dialects. As soon as I learned how to write, I embraced complete autonomy over the way in which I would fill the blank pages. This process helped me find my own voice, which has enabled me to contribute to communities around me and the world at large through youth conservation leadership, policy research, law journal editing work and team-building, public speaking, as well as student philanthropy.

Years flew by quickly, with my love for stories still at the core of it all (I am hoping to publish a work of fiction that is partly set in the US Supreme Court in the next two years).  I learned to read in-depth, and write in a way that communicates my passions with others in a logical (if not contagious) fashion. Journalism and freelance writing became my favourite ways of sharing the information I have gained from interviews, observations, and intensive research with a wider audience. 

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My relationship with blank sheets of paper, meanwhile, has become more complicated. During my university career,  I began to devote an increasingly significant amount of  time staring at blank Word documents, obsessively trying to find that “perfect” opening. Watching the cursor blink at the exact same spot can be frustrating, especially given my earlier tendency to fill in blank pages with free-flowing, passionate words.

This almost-paralysing brand of perfectionism challenged my long-standing love of blank paper and brought me to Harvard Law School (HLS)-educated Hong Kong barrister Laurence Li, who shared what was for me an initially painful conclusion: “Xiaoyi, you are too good of a student: one who thinks too comprehensively about everything when the world does not operate that way.” Evidently, my thirst for filling up blank pages was hindering precise thinking to a certain degree. This first exposure to the legal profession injected a renewed sense of excitement about blank paper: this time equipping me with courage to justify spending all the energy mapping out my arguments precisely and selectively before  I avidly fill up the pages. 

I look forward to turning to a new blank page, where I would zealously welcome prospects of further enriching my writing life – and elevating it to a more advanced level at HLS.

Edited by M. J. Premaratne