Writing lessons from life of award winner Harper Lee

What you need to know:

  • Being an enigma gives fans and journalists room to create myths, try to understand the author's mind and even harbour fantasies with the effect of propelling the book forward. As Robert Green says in The 48 Laws of Power, the more you are seen and heard from, the more common you appear.
  • Every writer knows that revising a manuscript to the satisfaction of a keen editor is one of the most frustrating tasks one can undertake. Lee was so frustrated once she threw the manuscript out her window and into snow. Yet because she listened and followed her editors’ advice, her little book did so well she couldn’t keep up with the fame and fortune it brought her.
  • Many a critic will tell you for free that this alleged sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird (it was later revealed that it wasn’t a sequel but, in fact the original first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird) was something of a literary disaster whose only success was in watering down the much admired character of Atticus Finch from a liberal lawyer to a hate-mongering racist.

Nelle Harper Lee, author of the 1960 Pulitzer winning American classic To Kill a Mockingbird, passed away on February 19, 2016 aged 89.

Lee, who was catapulted to fame by this novel about racial injustices in a small town, didn’t expect her novel to become a best seller. She seemed as surprised as everyone else when the novel, which tells the story of a white southern lawyer defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, became an instant bestseller.

The book was soon turned into an Oscar-winning movie and is to date the most taught book in the USA syllabus, beating John Steinbeck, Mark Twain and even Shakespeare. Still, it went further and got her appointed to the National Council for Arts by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Another president, George W. Bush, presented her with the highest civilian award in the USA, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and yet another president, Barack Obama, awarded her the National Medal of Arts.

What lessons, then, can Kenyan writers learn from this private small-town girl who once told a journalist that all she wanted to be was the Jane Austen of Alabama?

1. Fiction is made rich by real life material.

It is an undeniable fact that there are autobiographical parallels between To Kill a Mockingbird and Lee’s life. The characters and plot of the book are said to be based on real events and the racist segregation she experienced growing up in Manroeville, Alabama.

Moreover, the much admired lawyer character in the book, Atticus Finch, was fashioned after the author’s father, Amasa. C. Lee, who was a lawyer and had once defended two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper.

2. Write, don’t talk. Leave the public debate to critics and readers.

In writing, talk is cheap. A great writer needs to focus on producing their work and not giving interviews a la politicians.

By keeping mum about her personal life and upcoming work, Lee succeeded in becoming an enigma. This kept journalists on her heels, curious for any juicy morsel they could find on her.

As a matter of fact, Lee’s last interview was in 1964. With her scarcity came speculations and created myths. She let the critics do their thing and in keeping silent, the author let the social conversations and debates on her highly controversial work fan and fuel themselves.

Being an enigma gives fans and journalists room to create myths, try to understand the author's mind and even harbour fantasies with the effect of propelling the book forward. As Robert Green says in The 48 Laws of Power, the more you are seen and heard from, the more common you appear.

3. Get a Room of Your Own.

English writer and essayist Virginia Woolf, in her essay "A Room of One’s Own", tells of how important it is for a woman who writes fiction to have a room of her own and money in order to write.

The room of course is a metaphor for setting aside enough hours to be alone with one’s creative works. This is rather difficult especially when one has a day job. However, Lee afforded it because of my next point.

4. Keep friends who believe in your dreams enough to nudge you forward.

In a beautiful essay titled "Christmas to Me", which was first published in the Mccalls magazine in 1961, Harper Lee beautifully recounts how a couple with whom she spent the Christmas of 1956 in New York gave her the ultimate Christmas gift that enabled her to write her debut novel.

In a sacrificial manner similar to that of the couple in O. Henry’s story "Gift of the Magi", the couple, Michael and Joy Brown, though not well-to-do, gave Lee a cheque equal to her years’ salary at the firm she was working.

They did this to give Lee a fair chance to learn her craft away from the harassment of a regular job. They insisted that they had noticed she was talented and thus wanted her to focus and see if something came of it. The rest, as they say, is history.

5. Get a damn good editor, and listen to their advice.

When Harper Lee’s manuscript reached the publisher, J.B. Lippincott Company, it landed in the hands of an experienced editor named Tay Hohoff. She immediately saw Lee’s potential and patiently worked on revising the first draft with Lee for two years. Unsure of her talent then, Miss Lee is quoted as having said that she did everything her editor told her.

Every writer knows that revising a manuscript to the satisfaction of a keen editor is one of the most frustrating tasks one can undertake. Lee was so frustrated once she threw the manuscript out her window and into snow. Yet because she listened and followed her editors’ advice, her little book did so well she couldn’t keep up with the fame and fortune it brought her.

6. Sometimes one book is just enough.

After Harper Lee release her debut novel To Kill a Mockingbird, fans and critics were on her neck asking for more. Although the social pressure was heavy, Lee refused to bow to it saying she would never write again because she had said what she wanted to say and she would not say it again.

Lee remained, for about 55 years, a literary one hit wonder. However, late last year, a new novel titled Go Set a Watchman was released.

Many a critic will tell you for free that this alleged sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird (it was later revealed that it wasn’t a sequel but, in fact the original first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird) was something of a literary disaster whose only success was in watering down the much admired character of Atticus Finch from a liberal lawyer to a hate-mongering racist.

This revelation undoubtedly disappointed avid fans that loved and admired Finch so much they went on to become lawyers and even named their children after the character.
An author ought to, after releasing a masterpiece, think carefully about whether they have another novel inside them or not. As the saying goes, a writer is only as good as their last work and thus, it is better to, like J.D. Salinger of The Catcher in the Rye, Emily Bronte of Wuthering Heights, Arthur Golden of Memoirs of a Geisha and Margret Mitchel of Gone with the Wind, be known to have written one masterpiece than 20 shallow-themed, poorly written novels.

The writer is a teacher and freelance writer who runs a reading program for primary school children in Baringo. Visit www.glominage.wordpress.com to donate a book.

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