Harper Lee and Lessons for Revision
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.
Nice analysis, thank you! So it seems that the greater the distance we allow a draft, the more easily we can see its potential.
Ben, I do believe that distance is necessary to the revision process. I like to wait until enough time has passed since the first draft for it to seem as if it were written by someone else when I read through it again.
Excellent blog, Lee. As one who spent many years of my life editing, I resonate with this. We need the great editors who pull from our written manuscripts what will really work. Tay Hohoff, who edited Mockingbird, helped to create Lee’s masterpiece. Without her, we’d have had just Watchman (if that at all), no classic, no movie, and who knows? Maybe no Civil Rights movement as it transpired . . . Lee was brilliant but only with the guiding hand of a great editor who refused to let her stop revising until she got it right.
Linda, I love what you say about Tay’s role in the creation of
“To Kill a Mockingbrid.” You’re absolutely right!
I am a professional writer of 30 years. Thank you for your wise comments. They are the first comments on Harper Lee’s novel that resonate with me. Writing shapes us even as we shape the words on the page in a constant process of co-creation. The effort is always honorable, even as the end result doesn’t always work as well as we’d like. Thank you for your thoughts.
Yes, Maura! Writing does indeed shape us as we shape it. Very well said!
I loved reading this. It inspires new writers to keep revising and to understand what we begin with will change and mature. Through revision we find our voice and if we don’t give up, we create a story to be shared.
Sheri, your excellent comment is further testimony to what can happen if we accept the fact that anything and everything can change from draft to draft. Thanks for reading my blog!
” It never quite lives up to our expectations, but it teaches us something about the book we’re writing. ”
Thanks, Lindsay, for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.
Thanks for these important reminders. I’m always amazed at how stories evolve after each revision.
Re: Go Set a Watchman/Mocking Bird/Harper Lee and Revision
Once again you’ve provided a valuable lesson, this time on revision, and in so doing, turned the negative into the positive. Your analysis was moving and inspirational.
Thanks, as always, Roberta!
Thanks. You wrote exactly what I wanted to write, and what’s so important for all of us writers who struggle through the seemingly endless iterations of a novel.
Thanks so much, Dina, for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. Sometimes the revisions can seem endless, no? But each one takes us closer to more fully realizing our novels.
Thank you! That was the most beautiful of the many comments that I read/heard about this book. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Thank YOU, Mary, for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.
Excellent review and writing/revising lesson all in one, Lee. I’m almost finished with a third MAJOR revision of a novel, and it’s such a different book than it was after the first draft. I’m so glad I didn’t throw the pages out the window when I first heard back from editors that it needed lots of work.
I’m also enjoying reading Go Set a Watchman (my post on the topic is here: http://susancushman.com/writing-on-wednesday-why-i-am-reading-go-set-a-watchman/).
Thanks for sharing, Susan!
Wonderful observations you’ve made here. As I was reading Watchman, I thought of two people: Kay, my high school English teacher, with whom I and other students read Mockingbird and also watched the adaptation; and you. What do they think? I wondered as I opened Watchman to the first chapter and embarked on Ms. Lee’s maiden voyage.
Though it’s been years, you once shared with me some of your favorite books: Mockingbird was one of them, and Lolita was in there, too. I remember reading that note from you and smiling. Kindred souls as readers, was my observation.
I’ve read Mockingbird more than once. Years will pass, and I will pick it up and again plunge into life in Maycomb, Alabama, as seen through Scout’s eyes. Every time I do so, there is something new to learn.
When I read Watchman last week, I did my best to have an open mind. As always, I read it from a perspective of entertainment as well as instruction. What you’ve explored in this post coincides elegantly with my own feelings regarding Watchman. In the book lie glimmers: nuggets of gold which Ms. Hohoff noted and which, with Ms. Hohoff’s encouragement, Ms. Lee plucked, studied, and polished. I’m so glad she did. As Ms. Hohoff doubtless observed, a first draft is the place in which a writer discovers what he or she is attempting to say, and from that initial attempt burgeons the possibility of what a story is meant to become. One of the principal reasons we writers write (through suffering as well as joy) is, I think, to discover what it is we truly think and feel, and to understand better the world and those who populate it. From considering points of view that may be dissimilar to our own, we have an opportunity to glean knowledge and to exercise empathy.
Empathy: it was forefront in my mind and heart while I was reading Watchman. Certainly Ms. Lee’s wonderful voice is there, her sharp wit, her ability to construct sentences and situations that lift skyward.
But Watchman does something else that is very important (and which, no doubt, is causing those who love Mockingbird some discomfort): it dismantles the idealization in which we engage when we’re younger. To me, Watchman is about coming to terms with the harder truths of the world: namely, that people as we see them from our child’s eyes are not, indeed, infallible. There was pain in this realization, but such is a result of maturity — it doesn’t always tickle.
I’ve read a number of reviews in which people have accused Ms. Lee of writing a book that is lacking in plot. It’s true: there’s not an exorbitant amount of plot to be found in the book. However, I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. There are many different kinds of writing. My own work is character-driven, and perhaps that is why I’m not put out when I read a book or story that is focused more on observations and a certain kind of reverie. I’ve always preferred stories driven more by their characters than fast cars, explosions, and cliffhangers.
So, for me, Watchman is more a memory novel than anything. Within the action lie echoes in which is established and deepened the conflict that exists in the story’s present. Not a bad thing, I think. Nor is it bad that from this material was shaped a novel I still love and cherish, and one to which I return now and then.
Of course I’ll read Mockingbird again (a difficult thing for me: staying away from books that have had a profound effect on me), and be thankful that Watchman was so that it, Mockingbird, could be.
John, I like very much what you say about dismantling the idealization that we have when we’re young. Thanks for your comments!
Lee, I was excited to see your take on Watchman, and as usual with your posts, was surprised by the lesson you derived from it. The lesson really resonated with me.
I am known in my book club as “The Book Snob,” because there are so few books that we read that I can say I enjoyed. My main complaint is the trend in writing right now that I can only describe as “issue books.” If I listed the issues, I’d sound insensitive to their reality, which I’m not, but I tire of books where I feel like I’m engaged in a game of buzz word bingo. The biggest problem is that rather than plots that spring from character, the books seem conceived to support a trendy issue, and the characters created to dramatize the issue end up stereotypical and one dimensional. Or, as you put it: “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.”
I think when material comes from “a writer who has decided too much about her characters and their dramatic situations before the novel begins,” that the writer is too much in evidence in the writing as well, and am reminded of Flaubert’s advice: ““An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”
I’ve resisted reading Watchman, but now that you’ve put it in this perspective, I’m anxious to do so. Thanks for your wisdom, Lee!
Gail, thanks for that Flaubert quote, which I find very applicable to “Watchman.” There’s plenty to enjoy in HL’s novel even if it doesn’t quite all come together. Enjoy!
I was an Industrial Designer, I drew pictures for a living. When I had a story to tell, I had to learn how to write and find my voice. Thirty-eight rewrites, critique groups, bata readers, an excellent editor, and four years later, I self-published ‘My Father’s Keep’. It has placed in two international and two national self-publishing contests.
So many times I told myself I had no business writing anything. I’m glad I didn’t listen.
Ed, I love your story. Thank you so much for sharing it. Keep doing the good work!
[…] on the characters and flesh out Scout as a younger girl. And Mockingbird eventually came about. Lee Martin takes a look at the revision process through the lens of these two books and draws out some helpful […]