Thank you, Harper Lee

“A book should be the occasion of rejoicing, but it is seldom that, imparting a feeling of completion but not of satisfaction. I suppose a writer, almost by definition, is a person incapable of satisfaction–which is what keeps him at his post.”

~E.B. White from the forward to The Second Tree from the Corner


I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the second time. The first time I read it was, like most young Americans, in high school. Since its publication in 196o, it’s become almost sacred American literature. I enjoyed it upon my first reading, but it’s even better the second time around. Maybe it’s because I’m an adult. Whatever the reason, I am completely devouring it.

I am reading it in preparation for a library discussion. It is a two-part discussion. The first part was on the newest release by Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman. The second part will be on Mockingbird. This reading and re-reading couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I have been writing for a few years. I belong to a critique group. Sometimes, despite claiming to have a tough writer skin, I find my flesh too fragile and walk away wounded from the probably well-meant critique. Most likely, it was a bad time for me to ask. Most likely, I was already emotionally raw prior to asking.

Stephen King suggests writers “Write with the door closed. Edit with the door open.” Sometimes I open too soon. That first draft is wrought with visceral emotion. It hasn’t been filtered and processed and simmered down to that Hemingwayesque one true, clear message for the reader. Of course the reader will get frustrated. The writer hasn’t completely worked through the emotions yet. This leaves the reader feeling the same emotional turmoil. But I’m thankful other writers have rough rough drafts. Even a literary giant like Harper Lee.

The release of Watchman on July 15, 2015 stirred a great deal of controversy. Without going into literary criticism (as it’s not the purpose of this article), I would like to reflect upon what this book meant to me from a writer’s perspective. Upon reading it and finding inconsistencies, not just discrepancies between the Mockingbird Atticus and the Watchman Atticus as was being publicly argued, but inconsistencies within Watchman itself, I decided to take the book for what I believed it to be–a rough draft. Even though Harper Lee gave her consent for publication, was she really ready to release it? In reference to White’s quote above, maybe the book was complete, but was Lee satisfied?

Looking at it that way not only made its inconsistencies easier to accept, it also gave me great hope. So often I read a “finished,” polished piece and mistake it for a first draft. Knowing, of course, this is seldom the case. How many incarnations did that piece endure before I finally set eyes on it? I tend to forget about the work that went into it and instead set the author upon a pedestal that s/he probably worked very hard to climb. Viewed that way, Watchman looks like an excellent first draft. (Or, more likely, second or third. . .) It should cause us to more fully appreciate the craft of writing and those who strive, with every fiber of their being, to do it well.


About Amy Nicholson

A busy wife and mother pausing to ponder the beauty and complexity of life and share it with words.
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