The world lost a great storyteller last week. Harper Lee, author of the bestselling novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” died on Friday, February 19, 2016. She was known as much for her quiet, humble and elusive nature as her compelling novel about racial injustice in a small fictional Southern town.
She crafted this classic work in the 1950s and it was published in 1960. “Mockingbird” quickly became a bestseller, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and a memorable movie in 1962 for which Gregory Peck won an Academy Award. After the immense success of “Mockingbird,” Lee did something unusual. She never wrote a book again. Sure, “Go Set a Watchman” was released last year to much acclaim but it was originally written as a first draft of “Mockingbird.”
What can we, as writers, learn from this immensely successful but uncommonly reluctant writer?
1) Write for the right reasons. Harper Lee followed her convictions, wrote with a sense of purpose and produced a book for the ages that challenged the American conscious and became standard reading for millions of high schoolers. Her message was for the heart and soul. She wrote about something she wanted us all to feel and think about. Success was optional.
2) Say what you intend to say. Then move on. When asked why she stopped writing at the pinnacle of her career she said, “Two reasons. 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.” Enough said.
3) If fame finds you, don’t let it change you. Newspaper reports last week confirmed that friends and townsfolk in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama said, “She was a warm, vibrant and witty woman who enjoyed life, played golf, read voraciously and got about to plays and concerts.” She never let fame grip her—or change her.
4) Remain true to yourself. Harper Lee lived her life her way. She protected her life by protecting her privacy. Meanwhile, she gave the world something to cherish—and something to chew on.
Last year, I felt compelled to read “Go Set a Watchman.” Then, I immediately reread “Mockingbird.” My goal was to revisit her creative writing style, her memorable characters, the carefully crafted dialogue, southern setting, and the captivating narrative. And something more. I wanted to retrace the steps of a fictional hero in Atticus Finch, as well as a literary hero, in 88-year old Harper Lee. It was a journey worth taking.
Austin Kleon, (www.austinkleon.com) an accomplished young writer and artist made a great point when he said, “Great artists left their lesson plans in their work.” It’s true. In Harper Lee’s case, she not only left great lesson plans in her work—she left them in her life.
Farewell Nelle Harper Lee. You used your 15 minutes well.