Sunday, September 07, 2014

Coming to Terms With Yourself

When Harper Lee was asked what advice she’d give a young writer, she wrote:

“Well, the first advice I would give is this: hope for the best and expect nothing. Then you won’t be disappointed.”

And she went on to say: “You must come to terms with yourself about writing. You must not write “for” something, you must not write with definite hopes of reward. People who write for reward by way of recognition or monetary gain don’t know what they’re doing.”

These and other illuminating insights about the writing process are included in Kerry Madden's excellent biography of Harper Lee (Up Close: Harper Lee), a book that offers readers a rich portrait of small-town life in Alabama and the way such a life helped shape the author of To Kill A Mockingbird.

“My needs are simple: paper, pen, and privacy,” explains Lee, who grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, and whose sister Alice called her Nell.

She began writing at noon, Lee revealed in a letter responding to a request from her alma mater, Huntingdon College, about how she spent her day, and her work ended at midnight with a dinner break. Her idea of “play” was “reading, golf, and going through secondhand bookstores.”

Lee loved playing golf because it gave her the chance to be alone yet still be doing something. “You hit the ball, think, and take a walk. I do my thinking walking. I do my dialogue, talking it out to myself.”

As a child, she used to enjoy listening to her big brother, Ed, read stories to her and the young boy who lived next door.

Her father gave her and that boy a 25 pound black Underwood No. 5 typewriter, which they lugged into the back yard and into each other’s homes, and while one of them dictated a story, the other typed. That boy would become a famous author too, known to the world as Truman Capote.

The youngest of four children, Lee played imaginary games as a child like all kids, but “people watching” was her main interest. And books were scarce. “There was nothing you could call a public library,” she recalled.

Her high school English teacher, Miss Gladys Watson, became her friend and mentor for life, and it was the rule for good writing that she learned in Miss Watson’s class—“clarity, coherence, cadence”— that helped her shape the prose that became To Kill A Mockingbird.

Recalling her life in Monroeville, she wrote: “We did not have the pleasure of the theatre, the dance, of motion pictures when they came along. We simply entertained each other by talking. It’s quite a thing, if you’ve never been in or known a small southern town. The people are not particularly sophisticated, naturally. They’re not worldly wise in any way. But they tell you a story whenever they see you. We’re oral types— we talk.”

The girl who grew up known as “queen of the tomboys” went on to the University of Alabama to study law full time but got sidetracked along the way by Shakespeare and went to England as an exchange student to continue her studies in literature at Oxford University.

Eventually, she returned to Alabama and left law, quitting school against her family’s wishes, and moved to New York City, where she joined Truman and saw him occasionally.

“She had the “itch” to write,” said her sister, Alice, years later.

Lee spent eight years in New York before she felt ready to submit her short stories to a literary agent. But it wasn’t until friends gave her the gift of enough money to write full-time for a year that To Kill A Mockingbird began to emerge from her pen as a manuscript entitled “Atticus.”

In the process of creating her novel, she discovered that she was more of a “rewriter than a writer.”

“I write at least three drafts. I’ve been writing since I was a kid of seven. But I have systematically thrown out most of what I have written. It was a form of self-training.”

Unlike many writers who don’t like to write, Lee loved writing.

“Sometimes, I’m afraid that I like it too much,” she wrote, “because when I get into work I don’t want to leave it. As a result I’ll go for days and days without leaving the house or wherever I happen to be. I’ll go out long enough to get paper sad pick up some food and that’s it. It’s strange, but instead of hating writing, I love it too much.”

For more information about Kerry Madden’s biography of Harper Lee, visit:


graham salisbury said...

Great, Bruce, Thank you! I understand "loving" re-writing, but the writing first draft is darn hard work and not so loveable. I'd say it's something I respect more than love. The love comes alter, when I try to take my work from good to great. That's when I can spend hours and hours at my laptop and not even know it. Harper Lee is a national treasure.

Bruce Black said...

Isn't Harper Lee amazing? (She reminds me of another national treasure, but I won't embarrass you. by naming him.) Your thoughts on moving from respect to love are especially helpful this morning. And, yes, that first draft sure can feel like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without yet having collected all the pieces, can't it? Thanks so much, Sandy, for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

Augusta Scattergood said...

Aha! Now I know why I'm terrible at first drafts. I never mastered puzzles either!
Thanks for sharing Kerry's book. I read it a while back and it was nice to remember all the gems this morning.

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Augusta, for stopping by. Isn't Kerry's book terrific? She's got a wonderful voice, and it comes through even stronger in her novels. And, speaking of novels, I'm eagerly looking forward to reading your new book, The Way to Stay in Destiny. Good luck with it!! (And good luck as you move on to the next puzzle!)