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.


For a writer, each day is different. Some days, you are struck with amazing inspiration, and you can’t say for sure where it came from, and you can barely contain your enthusiasm to put pen strokes to page. On others, you wonder why you chose the profession at all, and do you even have the right to call yourself a professional when the words won’t come out right?
Then there are days like today. Editing days. Where you have a manuscript, but it needs much love and care, the kind of tending you fear is not your strong suit. Even so, you commit yourself. I will up this story’s stakes. I will give readers a reason to want to read on. I will make them care as much as I care for these characters, this place, this time, this work.
To feel like you’ve done that, even in a small measure–with the pruning of some words, the adding of others, to know that you’ve achieved a breakthrough when no one else knows it, no one else can see it to celebrate with you, is nonetheless such a glorious feeling I just had to share it here.