HARPER LEE WAS MY WRITING TEACHER
Fifty years ago, Harper Lee led me into her bewitching world and taught me most of what I know.
As a compulsive reader from childhood, I recognized Lee’s magic the minute I finished “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I was then a young, optimistic mother, struggling to become a published author. With five boys and a girl bouncing off our walls, writing at home was impossible.
Instead, I escaped into the nearby hills above our half acre in Tustin. On a road that led nowhere, I parked and sat with my Smith-Corona on my lap and Harper Lee’s book open on the seat beside me. I simply had to find out what made her prose so compelling. What was she doing that I’d so far never discovered? How, with both of us using the same language, did she transport me to another world, while my writing seemed only slightly more riveting than “Fun With Dick and Jane?”
It quickly became obvious that we were both trying to create something that other people would view instantly . . . let’s say, a brick wall. Which was when I grasped that in her case the reader saw only the bricks. But the magic actually lay in the mortar--the small bits that held the bricks together, the bits that few people noticed.
Making my task nearly impossible was the fact that I kept getting swept away into her story. It took a stubborn German psyche to analyze her technique, because it was essentially invisible. And thus, from Day One I assumed she’d been both smart and lucky--visited by some kind of inner manna from heaven.
Still, I tried. And I learned things that never came to light elsewhere. I discovered a seldom-discussed trick for displaying character . . . when I realized it was Atticus’ neighbor, Miss Maudie, who described for his children the deeper character of Atticus—more than the reader could grasp from what he said, did, or thought. So now I teach my students that this fourth element is a novelist’s godsend.
I figured out that you can write a book largely from a child’s viewpoint, yet include significant portions from an adult perspective—so yes, it’s a child’s story—but never confined to a childish mind.
With study I found the small bits of action that accompany dialogue, but actually reveal personality: “Mr. Tate’s voice was quiet, but his boots were planted so solidly on the porch floorboards it seemed that they grew there.”
During my “study years” (which have never quite ended), I realized that the best memoirs usually read like novels—whereas the best novels quite often read like memoirs. Thus, I teach both in one class.
After years of assuming the novel more or less fell into Harper Lee’s lap with minimal effort—because she was so naturally brilliant--I learned otherwise from the book “Scout, Atticus, and Boo” a fifty-years retrospective. Harper Lee had, in fact, been subsidized for two years by publisher J.B. Lippincott, to live in a New York hotel and polish a manuscript which they thought had promise. Her editor said, “Go back and re-write it from the child’s viewpoint.” Lee later disclosed that those two years had been among the most intense and difficult of her life.
So there was no manna from heaven after all. Like most superb authors, it turns out she worked like a demon to achieve her unforgettable prose. It seems a great book can start out mundane but become immortal as the result of a thousand small upgrades. Which is why I couldn’t read, “Go Set a Watchman.” I never wanted to be disappointed by the manuscript that “almost was.”
If I can now claim to be a decent writer, most of the credit goes to Harper Lee.
My latest memoir, "The Tail on my Mother's Kite," available, autographed, on
Maralys.com. Or you can find it on Amazon.