Creative Living 12 — Paul Goldstein

April 5th, 2009

Paul Goldstein is one of the world’s leading experts on intellectual property issues and the author of two absolutely cracking novels that explore this area, Errors and Omissions and A Patent Lie, both of which knocked me out. Writers, as the creators of intellectual property that’s increasingly likely to be stolen or bootlegged, will be especially interested in these books, although it’s hard for me to imagine anyone who wouldn’t. Goldstein, the Lillick Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, has also literally written the book(s) for intellectual property lawyers: Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox (Stanford University Press, Revised Edition 2003); Intellectual Property: The Tough New Realities that Could Make or Break Your Business (Penguin Portfolio 2007); the four-volume Goldstein on Copyright; and the one-volume International Copyright: Principles, Law and Practice. And he finds time to write first-rate thrillers. Goldstein can be reached at

Creativity in my daily life divides over three pursuits: writing fiction, teaching law, and practicing law at a large international law firm. Like Christopher West, an early contributor to Tim’s Creative Living blog, I believe that every corner of life and work offers the opportunity to be creative, to transcend traditional ways of getting things done. Coming up with a new and engaging presentation of time-worn legal doctrines for a class of law students, or devising an elegant – and inexpensive – solution to a client’s legal problem, involves creative energy no less than plotting and pacing a narrative or developing fictional characters and the relationships between them. (One similarity is the inner glow that accompanies success in any creative effort; one difference is that, for me at least, fiction requires more sustained creative effort.)

My writing, teaching and law practice all center on intellectual property law, and one of the great payoffs of this overlap comes when one pursuit feeds another. The core idea for my first novel, Errors and Omissions, occurred to me while I was working on a copyright case, helping MGM/UA defend its hugely profitable James Bond franchise against (alleged) pillage at the hands of Sony Pictures. The lawsuit already had all the drama of a bet-the-company case, but I found that I could deepen the human story by introducing elements of plot and character drawn from the old Hollywood blacklist era that I sometimes refer to in my Copyright class.

Boundaries, self-imposed or not, can sharpen creativity’s challenge. Getting the legal rules right is obviously important to both my teaching and my lawyering, but I treat authenticity as a boundary in my novels as well. I won’t make a trial any easier for series hero Michael Seeley by letting him introduce inadmissible evidence, or demand – and receive – information that no witness is obliged to provide; to do so would not be authentic. The creative challenge is how to get that inadmissible evidence in, how to produce that plot-turning information, without having Seeley or the judge do things that no lawyer or judge would plausibly do. Forty years’ experience working with some very smart – and creative – lawyers helps the effort immeasurably.

Navigating between three areas of creative work does call for flexibility. Although I prefer to write first thing in the morning, an early class or a 6:30 a.m. conference call from the East Coast will sometimes make that impossible. But, whatever else is happening in my work life, I do have a commitment to myself to write fiction at least four hours a day, seven days a week, and I have strayed from that commitment only rarely – and usually for reasons having to do with the writing itself, rather than the demands of other work. (See below for what I do when that happens. ) Also, work schedules sometimes limit my choice of where to write. Although I prefer to work in my study at home, a good deal of writing gets done in quiet corners of airport lounges, on airplanes and in hotel rooms. I have tried (but sadly failed!) to write during faculty meetings.

The one – for me, crucial – writing activity that recognizes bounds of neither time nor place is note-taking. On walks, over meals, at any hour, day or night (and, yes, in faculty meetings, too) I scribble notes as ideas occur to me, not only for the novel on which I am presently working, but for the next one or two as well. There is no greater comfort at the start of a new book than a file folder filled with notes.

Sometimes, when a narrative gets stuck or characters stop talking to each other, I find it helpful to put the novel aside for two or three days and to devote those precious four or more extra hours each day to work on one of my two legal treatises or to my hobby, photography. Each activity makes its own contributions: treatise-writing occupies my mind with a way of thinking that differs from fiction, while at the same time keeping my writing muscles limber; and there’s nothing like the quiet and peace of the photographic darkroom, and its focus on a photograph’s visual narrative, to unblock a verbal narrative. In either case, I find that these short vacations invariably refresh my fiction.

And then there is a discipline that never fails to get a scene or chapter back on track. I learned it not from a book on writing, but from a primer on photography published many years ago by Kodak. The first chapter, titled something like “How to Take a Picture,” instructs the photographer always to ask three questions before snapping the shutter: What do I want this picture to say? What elements do I need to include (and exclude) in order for the picture to make that statement? And, how should I arrange these elements within the frame to make that statement most effectively? True to the premise that creativity has common features across a wide range of pursuits, I can say that these three questions work at least as well for fiction as they do for photography (and, for me, work better). I don’t doubt that they also work for music, poetry and, indeed, any other area of creative activity.

7 Responses to “Creative Living 12 — Paul Goldstein”

  1. Dana King Says:

    Having read ERRORS AND OMISSIONS, I can vouch that Paul does not take the easy way out. He makes his characters do it right, they way they’d have to in real life, even it they have to work for it, which, if you think about it, makes for a better challenge in the story. I’m a big bleiever that the “breakout” exhortation to raise the stakes, often to hysterical levels, detracts from mosr books and movies than it helps. It’s seeing how things can be made to work in the world we all live in that keeps my interest.

    I also hope some friends who “never have time to write” read this. If someone with Paul’s schedule can find four hours a day, anyone should be able to find fifteen minutes if they really want to write.

    Great post.

  2. Suzanna Says:

    Hi, Paul

    Thanks for giving us a picture of what it’s like to juggle your very full creative and professional life. It’s an inspiration to read about your keen level of attention and focus on your writing, and how beautifully your photography gives you another place to express yourself and refreshes your writing process. Bravo for stealing time for your creativity whenever and wherever it arises!

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I’m actually in awe of Paul. I wrote six novels when I was gainfully employed, and it was the hardest thing I ever did. But Paul is juggling three lives, and it’s evident from his novels/titles/practice that he’s doing extraordinary work in each.

    I very much like the idea that “Boundaries, self-imposed or not, can sharpen creativity’s challenge.” One of the great joys for me in writing fiction is seeing that my characters actually can find their way through a story that makes sense and has some sort of shape WITHOUT violating my sense (or theirs) of who they are. I think all responsible fiction writers set the boundary of character an a minimum deliverable — nothing makes me throw a book across a room more quickly or with greater force than a key event that’s possible only because someone behaves completely out of character.

    And I’m also hearing, once again, that writing is — or should be — a daily activity. So I’m with Dana: after reading this, it’s harder to accept the excuses of people who “don’t have time” to write or “can’t stick to a schedule.” My guess is that there are other issues at work in every case, and that the primary one is fear of failure.

    Which we all face, every single day.

    Anyway, I want to thank Paul for this piece, which I think is thoughtful in the extreme, and also to recommend both of his novels.

  4. Dana King Says:

    I think that many of the people who “can’t find time to write” are more enamored of the idea of being a writer than they are of actually writing anything. Not everyone, of course; illness and job troubles can set anyone back. The vast majority, though.

    I belong to a writers group that self-publishes an annual anthology, to give its members an outlet. After the first few, it became like pulling teeth to get members to contribute, even though no one wanted the book to be put to bed until they got their story an. They just kept putting it off, even though they were virtually guaranteed to be accepted. (I htink we turned down something like three stories out of close to one hundred over the years.) They all oved the idea of seeing their name in the book and signing copies for friends and relatives, but sitting down and actually writing the story was too much for them.

  5. Thomas Says:

    I’m a bit late in the game but I felt I had to comment on Paul’s post. What really hits me in your post is a joy for both your legal work and your fiction writing. I think passion is a critical ingredient in any creative pursuit. Take Einstein. He wasn’t so much more intelligent than other people in his field. He was a genius by any standard but what set him apart from many of his colleagues was not his passion for his work, but his joy; that almost childlike enthusiasm that made him forget about meals and made him wear the same old sweater every day of the year. Nothing else mattered much and he smiled while working.

    I think passion is critical, but it’s not everything. When I look around me I see that passion comes in at least two varieties, one with joy and one without.

    There is the kind you can sometimes see in 20-year-old self-proclaimed poets, wearing John Lennon glasses, dressing in black, never revealing their humanity by smiling in photographs, talking about how their angst-laden writing is like giving birth, insisting they have something vital to say in that way all children do, exuding passion, but no joy. These people will never accomplish anything of value to anyone else unless they realize that the concoction of youth and hubris is the autobahn to failure. They will disappear into oblivion, not leaving much of a mark behind, never having said anything.

    The other kind is the one where passion and joy go hand in hand. Paul is clearly a brainy guy, but it’s more than that. When I look at his website (which you should do if you want to feel humble for a moment) I see someone who has achieved a lot within a field many would consider dry, but who has written volumes on the subject for many years and then, far into the journey, decides to direct some of that passion towards fiction. You can’t do that sort of thing without passion AND joy.

    Paul, how inspiring! Time, schlime. Who cares about time? I don’t think time really has anything to do with it. Like Tim and many others have said, it’s more likely a matter of fear. Fear of failure, embarrassment of showing something private, you name it. I want to add passion and joy to the mix. One example: My neighbor, who has a husband, kids, house, and a demanding career to fill her days, still gets up at five a.m. six days a week and goes to the gym. Why? She wants to look a certain way, sure, but it’s also because she is passionate about her health and she genuinely enjoys hearing her heartbeat. Another example: A friend has a wife, kids, house, and a demanding career to fill his days, but he stays up late evenings and sometimes half nights, organizing and re-organizing his vast stamp collection. Not my cup of tea, but this guy is passionate about it and the smile on his face as he pours over his stamps is both mysterious and contagious. These people find time because of their passion and joy. Paul is just another great example of what I’m talking about.

    Paul, in case you read this, I’m not kissing up here; just observing. 🙂

    Thanks for a great post,

  6. Sylvia Says:

    This is really timely for me because at the moment, I am really feeling like I can not fit everything in and I’m at a loss as to how to deal with it. I think to a great extent the issue is that I’m working on really-big-things (as in long-term time-consuming, not in terms of popularity) and I’m not used to it.

    I’ve been doing a major rewrite of a novel which is scary and exhilerating and necessary – I honestly do believe that I am working towards something good – but it has taken four months so far and it will be at least another month, maybe two, before this draft will be complete. And after that, I want to do one more read-through and line edit which I guess will take another month. And even THEN it’s not done because I’ll have to work out a query for it. :/

    The thing is, this is using up all of my free time and creative energy and I can’t see an end in sight. I want to be working on a non-fiction project (flying a small plane to each of the British isles with a runway) and writing a pitch and seeing if there’s enough interest to push ahead (I’ve done 6 islands but there are 38 in total so it’s a big hit both in terms of time and finance!). It’s a very exciting project but to move forward at all will have to wait until the novel is done (or else I’ll never finish it) which is months away *wail*

    And on top of that, I’ve received nothing but rejections for my short stories in 2009. I know exactly why this is: I’ve written nothing new and all the “no-brainers” have been picked up, so the only stories I have on submission now are the stories which are hard to sell (or even not saleable at all). So I really want to spend a month working on short stories to see if I can come up with anything exciting – even if only for the ego rush of being able to show it off as new and shiny – but any time I spend doing that will slow down the novel which is supposed to have top priority now.


    Sorry, I didn’t mean that to devolve into a rant. I know I have to just keep slogging ahead and working at it. But if you felt like writing a blog post on the doldrums of a long edit and how to avoid feeling like you’ll never finish anything, this reader sure would gobble it up. 🙂

  7. Sylvia Says:

    I’m better again now, honest. 😀

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