Whoa, wait a minute! Did I just write that headline? What am I thinking? Is Harper Lee really a writer? Harper Lee is the American novelist and author of the bestseller, To Kill a Mockingbird. She authored this 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning book that confronts racism not only in the south but in our hearts.
She received honorary degrees from several universities including Notre Dame and sold 30 million copies of this book which was voted “Best Novel of the Century” in a poll by the Library Journal. And yes, this is the same author that was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for literature by President Bush in 2007.
So, how could I possibly wonder if Harper Lee was “really a writer” especially if she accomplished more with one book than most of us will accomplish in a lifetime of writing? A clue to the answer to my question is found in the question itself. “One book.”
After Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird she never wrote another book again. She granted no requests for interviews or public appearances. Speeches were out of the question. A second novel was abandoned and filed away. A few short essays were later published but nothing else.
While I hold immense respect for this bestselling author, I struggle to reconcile Lee’s decision with what we all intrinsically believe about writers; writers write. Why did Lee stop writing at the pinnacle of her career?
“Two reasons,” she once explained. “One, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”
What other treasures could this critically acclaimed novelist have left the world if she had more to say—and was willing to say it? That’s a moot question.
While I sympathize with her fears and feelings about publicity and privacy, especially in today’s world, I can’t silence the drum beating incessantly in my head: a writer writes, a writer writes, a writer writes.
Perhaps Robert Penn Warren, American poet and 1947 Pulitzer Prize winning author said it best, “A publisher friend of mine says that most writers are not real writers; they are just people who want to have written. Real writers are those who want to write, need to write, have to write.”
While it’s true the sum total of our work may never accomplish what Harper Lee accomplished with her sole work, perhaps the best measure of our personal writing legacy is not what we’ve written, but that we’ve never stop writing.
What do you think? Leave a comment.