Thursday, April 29, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned From Harper Lee

This week (April 28) marks the 84th birthday of Harper Lee.

I recall reading a brief biography of Lee back in 2007 I think, when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I already knew that she was a childhhod friend of Truman Capote, and that the character of Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was somewhat based on her own childhood. But then I read that as a young writer she once received a year's wages as a Christmas gift, so that she could take a year off to write whatever she pleased. MOCKINGBIRD was the result.

Eegads! That bit of information took my breath away (it still does) and turned me pea green with envy (it still does). What writer has not dreamed of such a gift and promised himself that he could be a great writer if he only had such a gift of time. It's as cliche as a T-shirt: So many ideas, so little time.

But once I regained my breath, I realized two things. Most great writers don't have a year given to them to write. They make do with odd bits of time, with weekends and evenings and late, late nights. And they manage to turn out outstanding works of literature just the same. Maybe you just learn to keep a little bit of space in your mind always creating, so that when the time is there, you are ready with the right words.

And those writers who wish for more time? How many of them would waste the time given to them if they had it? It is so easy to fritter away a day or a weekend or a week with e-mails and Facebook and Twitter. A gift of a year is not without it's own pressure. How many people would spend the year paralyzed with fear staring at the blank screen?

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is unquestionably one of the great books of American literature. Lee's triumph is that she knew just where she wanted to go in that year and had the guts to go there.

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