Harper Lee and Me

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” was recently voted America’s Most Beloved Book on the PBS show, “The Great American Read.” The book earned Lee a Pulitzer prize in 1960, and since then it has sold more than 40,000,000 copies and has been printed in 40 languages.

With stats like that it’s understandable why Ms. Lee might have suffered a bit of literary performance anxiety concerning her next book. “Go Set a Watchman” was written in 1957 — three years before Mockingbird, but it wasn’t published until just before she died in 2015. Fifty-five years without a follow-up. Talk about a sophomore slump.

Remarkably, the same thing happened to me. My own literary debut received critical acclaim as well. It was a penetrating, heartfelt and insightful look into the relationship between a young boy and his dog. “My Dog Skeeter,” written when I was in fourth grade, was published in my elementary school’s newspaper, “The Mouse Roars” (Okay, maybe it’s just me, but would anyone else question the judgement of parents who sent their kids to a school with a mouse for a mascot?) Anyway, that was my first and last time submitting anything for publication.

It isn’t as if I haven’t been writing. For nearly twenty years I actually tried to teach writing — among other subjects. I was an elementary school teacher and writing was one of my favorite subjects. We practiced journal writing, expository and persuasive writing, etc. I don’t know how many of my students became better writers due to my instruction, but after years of repetition my own writing slowly improved. I often joked with my students that I was proud of the progress they’d made, but apparently the principal thought I needed more practice because I was being held back — again.

One of my favorite contemporary authors is Malcolm Gladwell. In his book “Outliers: The Story of Success,” he explores what it takes to succeed. He studied Bill Gates, the Beatles and others and concluded that while each of his subjects was clearly gifted what set them apart from the their peers and set them up for success was the 10,000+ hours each invested in mastering their craft. It’s hard to say how much time Harper Lee spent perfecting her writing. Whatever she did though was definitely effective because she managed to produce a work of enduring depth and beauty. As for me, while all that practice may have helped improve the quality of my work I’ll probably always write like a ten year old ;-)