The Norfolk County Courthouse is right in the middle of town, and I pass it many times a day. Today, I park, gather together my notebooks, computer, I.D., take a deep breath and march in.
The Asian police officer at the front desk barely glances at me as I put my bag through the X-Ray machine and walk, stoop-shouldered, through the metal detector. A curving stairway lined with stained marble leads upstairs to the room where, a few years ago, I listened to the jury foreman say “guilty.” The Judge’s chambers are up there too, where I sat and watched as my friend was sentenced to four to five years in prison. I watched the police cuff him and lead him away in front of his wife and children. That night, I watched it all over again on the evening news.
I hitch my bag up on my shoulder. To my left, behind tall oak doors with etched glass panels, is the Clerk’s office. Inside is a messy warren of mismatched desks and file cabinets. Enormous windows overlook the High Street.
No one looks up as I enter.
“Hi?” I say, putting my bag down on the floor between my legs. Half the space in the narrow entryway is taken up with a counter upon which piles of papers are stacked haphazardly. No one appears to hear me. “Hello? I’d like to see a court transcript. Of a trial. From a few years ago?”
Three sets of eyes look up at me simultaneously.
When does a story become ours to tell? This simple question had been haunting me since the trial. Over and over again, friends came up to me at parties, woozy with beer. “You have to write about this!” they’d say, eyes on fire. It was all very exciting, for them. I perfected a frozen smile.
Meanwhile, I was living my own hellish reality that no one suspected: I wasn’t sleeping. My doctor put me on sleep medications and anti-depressants. I developed a mysterious back ailment I couldn’t get rid of. Almost every morning, I spent the first few hours trapped inside the deep and secret guilt of my stupendous hangovers. I suffered my first ever anxiety attacks. Twice I experienced vertigo so intense I had to stay in bed all day. Thank god I had a nonfiction book contract. I was surprisingly productive. I went on TV to publicize my book. I got steady editing work.
To the outside world, everything was normal. To me, everything had fallen apart.
“Transcripts?” a lady at the back says. “Well. We don’t keep those in here.”
“Oh,” I say, relief flooding through me. Easy. I’ll just turn around and leave and forget this project. It’s taken me years to gather the nerve to come back here, and now I can just go home and forget about it all.
The woman at the desk closest to me turns her eyes back to her computer. That leaves four eyes on me. No one bothers to get up. I’ve been dismissed.
I feel myself beginning to get irritated. I’m here now, aren’t I? I have a right to see those papers. Those files are public.
“Really?” I say after a moment, keeping my voice light. “So… where are the transcripts kept, then? You’ve got court documents here, right? I’m allowed to see those by law, aren’t I? I mean, they’re in the public domain.”
I smile my most guileless smile. Everyone is watching me now.
A thin, middle-aged woman in a fitted green T-shirt stares at me through thick glasses. “Case number?” she asks.
I say the case number.
“What kind of case was it?”
The two women at the back of the room exchange glances. The one who told me they don’t keep transcripts here leans back in her leather chair, pencil in hand. “You want to see the transcripts of a rape trial? Is it over?” she says after a while.
“Yes. Uh, a few years ago.”
“Was there a conviction? Did it go to appeal?”
“Both,” I answer. “He was convicted and then appealed.”
“You a journalist, or a lawyer?” the woman in green asks. “You need to fill out paperwork, you know. You’ll have to say why you want to see the files. Not everyone’s allowed to see the files. There are rules.”
“That’s okay. I can do that. I’ll fill out paperwork.” My heart is racing.
On the sheet of paper she hands me, I state my reason for the request: personal research. After “Relationship” I write: friend.
For years, I’d been locked up in a kind of jail myself. After a two-week writer’s residency during which I wrote 500 words, I finally admitted to myself that I might never write fiction again. This realization was relief and torture in equal measure.
One day, I decided that I was powerless to do anything to change what had happened or what was happening. I let go of my guilt. It wasn’t my job to fix this mess. My back pain disappeared almost immediately. I never suffered another anxiety attack. Eventually, I laid off the pills and booze.
As a writer, when do you have permission to write about someone else’s tragedy? No matter how hard I tried, I could not stop wrestling with the questions that lingered for me. Those were my demons.
Though I was no longer physically ill, I could not move on. I still wasn’t working on my novel.
That day at the courthouse, I succeed in getting hold of the court documents, and I sit there for hours poring over transcripts (incomplete), depositions (tragic), police reports (wordy), and appeal filings (indecipherable). It’s all horribly familiar to me. But I feel okay. I am sad, but not devastated.
A transformation is taking place as I read: the story is changing. It is morphing into my story. I’m not thinking about my friend, I’m thinking about my plot. I’m thinking about how to tackle the questions that have been bothering me. My imagination starts to kick in.
My eyes begin to hurt and I go home. Even though I have a deadline for other writing, I decide to work on my novel for a bit. To try, one more time. I’ll put in 15 minutes… half an hour…. maybe more…
I write 2,000 words. It’s been a very long time since I wrote 2,000 words in one sitting.
I take something I lived through, claim it as my own, and make peace with my discomfort. I am not writing that story, I am writing my own story. It doesn’t belong to others, I decide, it belongs to me.
It has taken me a long time to get here, too long. But I’ve done my time.
Have you ever experienced writer's block? I would love to hear your story. You can reach me at email@example.com.
May the Force be with you,
Katrin Schumann is the co-author of The Secret Power of Middle Children (Hudson Street, 2011), Mothers Need Time-Outs, Too (McGraw-Hill, 2008), and has written and edited numerous other titles, both commercially and independently. Katrin has been featured multiple times on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets. Current works-in-progress include a novel, a book on parenting strategies that can make or break affluent children, and on-going editorial work for editors, agents, and writers. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and at Bay State Correctional Facility, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. She has a regular column on The Grub Daily and can be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann