This past week’s release of Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman, has me thinking of the first time I was aware of To Kill a Mockingbird, not the book, but the film, which I saw with my aunt and grandmother at a drive-in theater when I was seven. I remember being completely engrossed with the world of Scout and Jem and Dill; the more adult elements of the film weren’t yet within my grasp. I have to believe that my aunt and grandmother were counting on that fact, assuming, of course, that they knew in advance that the film dealt with complicated issues of race and class and sexuality and gender, which, of course, they may not have known. Drive-in movies gave us somewhere to go in our small Midwestern town. For some reason, my aunt and grandmother were responsible for my care on that particular evening. Maybe they needed something to entertain me. Maybe it was just that. Maybe we were just going to a show.
I’ve read the book and watched the film countless times through my adult years, and each time I reach the scene in which Bob Ewell comes at Scout and Jem with a knife as they’re walking through the woods after a school pageant, I recall sitting between my aunt and grandmother in the front seat of my aunt’s car, terrified. I remember the sound of the wind through the trees, the footsteps following Scout and Jem, the hands reaching out of the darkness for Jem’s throat, the struggle, Jem’s exhortations for Scout to run, the hand grabbing him by the hair, the wringing of his arm, Boo Radley’s rescue.
I don’t know whether my aunt and grandmother knew that I was scared. I don’t remember any details at all about what happened in that car from that point forward, only that we didn’t stay for the second feature, Jack Lemmon in Under the Yum Yum Tree. I don’t even remember where we went after leaving the theater. Was I staying at my grandmother’s house? Did they take me home to my parents? I don’t know because I was still living in the moment of that attack in the woods. That scene had gotten inside me and wouldn’t leave, just as in the years to come other scenes, such as the one when Atticus leaves the courtroom to the respect from the African-Americans in the gallery after the trial of Tom Robinson—“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”—would take up residence inside me for a lifetime.
The writer and teacher in me is glad I read Go Set a Watchman for the literary artifact that it is, one that testifies to the value of a good editor, one who saw where the writing was the most genuine and invited her author to go back and to write from this point of engagement. Watchman also stands as testimony to how far a novelist can come in the act of revision. It’s the revision work that teaches us the most about how to write as long as we’re willing, as Harper Lee obviously was, to open ourselves to possibility, to detach ourselves from those first drafts, to be brave enough to approach the material from a position of true vulnerability.
Both Watchman and Mockingbird took on material that mattered deeply to Harper Lee. Of that, I have no doubt. But to my way of thinking, Watchman seems to come from a writer who has decided too much about her characters and their dramatic situations before the novel begins. Jean Louise, the adult Scout, expects conflict between her own values and those of her hometown when she arrives for a visit, and the scenes of the novel serve to illustrate the validity of her expectations. When Harper Lee revised Watchman and turned it into Mockingbird, she changed the point of view to an adult narrator looking back on her younger self with a central dramatic episode providing the narrative focus of the novel. Mockingbird, then, is a novel about something that happened—the accusation and trial of Tom Robinson, and all that came afterward. Watchman, for my taste, is too much a novel about similar cultural issues but without a solid narrative frame upon which to hang them; therefore, the novel becomes too nakedly a novel of ideas rather than a novel, like Mockingbird, that allows its ideas to rise organically from its sharply-focused action.
A novel’s success can depend on the lens the novelist chooses for the telling. The shift from third-person to first-person in Mockingbird was crucial to the new approach that Harper Lee took with her material. The jaded Jean Louise of Watchman is a consciousness that knows too much too soon. The Jean Louise who speaks to us in Mockingbird speaks from a more vulnerable position, a position of coming to know. Looking back on her younger self, she’s able to set us in the position of co-seeker. She knows no more than we do, and so we make the journey together, coming to learn what she learns at the time she learns it.
The difference between the Watchman and Mockingbird offers us lessons on how to treat the revision process. We should put our egos aside after we complete a manuscript and be ready to accept the fact that a first draft humbles us. It never quite lives up to our expectations, but it teaches us something about the book we’re writing. We have to be willing to listen to what our first drafts are trying to tell us. Sometimes it takes a good reader—friend or agent or editor—to help us see the potential in what we’ve written. Sometimes we see it ourselves in the sections that cause us to squirm in our chairs, not because the writing is bad, but because those sections come from us in our most vulnerable states, because we know we’re expressing something we ordinarily wouldn’t share with our closest loved ones, yet alone with strangers. We should write with humility. We should tell our stories as if we’re whispering secrets in the dark.
Find that point of view and trust it. Others can help us learn all the other aspects of writing—how to work with structure, what to do with setting and detail, how to hone our sentences, how to create round characters, etc.—but the one thing we have to bring to the table before the writing will resonate is a willingness to stand exposed even if we end up being the only ones who know what we’re revealing. That’s what happened for me that night at the drive-in theater when the scene of Bob Ewell’s attack wouldn’t let me go. I didn’t know it then, but I do now. That scene tapped into a part of me I didn’t want anyone to know—that I was a sensitive, worried child who was prone to all sorts of fears. To this day, I feel that attack somewhere deep inside me in a very private place. That scene did its work, as so many scenes of Mockingbird do, because Harper Lee let Watchman lead her to her own private places where she was vulnerable on the page.
Tay Hohoff was the editor at Lippincott who suggested an alteration in the lens that Harper Lee was using for her book. Lee had struggled for years to tell a story about small-town Southern life. She almost gave up. One night, after Hohoff made her suggestion, Lee hurled her manuscript pages out the window of her apartment in Manhattan. Then she changed her mind. She went downstairs and retrieved those pages. She went to work on a complete overhaul of the book. That’s the thing I want us all to remember as we speak critically of Watchman. Harper Lee didn’t quit. She knew she had a story to tell. She got to work. She ended up with a classic, but in order to write it, she had to write Watchman first. There’s no shame in that.