An Important Lesson Reading Harper Lee Can Teach Writers

Harper Lee’s one and only completed novel (the draft of said novel that became a book later doesn’t count, in this case, though it is fascinating) shows us that she was an author on a mission. She knew what she wanted to say from the first paragraph, who she wanted to say it to, and  the very specific, southern way in which she wanted to frame it all.

If only all of us authors could have the luxuries she did; an editor who knows where we’ve gone awry and isn’t afraid to tell us so, an agent who sees brilliance in ordinary words that, if worked over, will become extraordinary, a publisher patient enough to let us hone our work down to its truest, a reading public receptive and ready and curious and reverential. I’d settle for those first three, though.

At least once a week, I find my favorite passages from Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and read them aloud to myself. Who can forget, for example, “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”  I have always been an auditory learner, and while I like to hold a book in my hands for the tactile experience of it, hearing the words of a great author and how they flow helps the writer within me puzzle over and through the writing challenges I am presented with.

Sometimes I need to remind myself that, as much as Mockingbird is, in Oprah’s words, “our national novel”, it is not a perfect work. No one has ever composed a perfect work. All authors, published or not, look at their previous prose and can find something with which to take issue. What makes Mockingbird sing is its heart, and the way it connects to our own. When I write, I try with all I have to write words that touch you smack in the middle of your chest. If I can do that, I’ve succeeded, and I should be proud.

If you can do that, you should be proud, too.

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