I don’t know how I managed to get through high school without reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I blush even to write such a thing. I read other classics: Brave New World, A Farewell to Arms, The Grapes of Wrath, The Bell Jar, A Separate Peace, but not the Mockingbird.
I’ve had many opportunities since high school to read it, of course. No good reason for not having done so, and it’s funny because I’ve always wanted to read it. Watching Gregory Peck become Atticus Finch’s flesh and bone on screen is not the same thing.
I am proud to say the deed is done. I finished it last night, sated, intrigued and wondering. It was different than I expected. I had always thought this was a book about a white lawyer who defends an innocent black man in the pre-civil-rights South. It’s actually about a young girl watching her father practice law in the pre-civil-rights South. It’s a story about a girl who watches, wonders, interprets. And that is the persona of every writer I know, including me.
I told the members of my book club that this book is driven by its characters not its plot and that the story thread is subtle. It is more like a deep lake than a moving river. Both are wet, both can be big and imposing. One is quiet and still, though, while the other is all about its destination.
Most people know To Kill a Mockingbird, which took the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the year I was born, is Harper Lee’s only published novel. Here are a few other things I learned in recent days about her. Lee’s first name is Nelle. Her grade school playmate was Truman Capote. She spent a year at Oxford University. She worked briefly as an airline reservations clerk.
And while she granted few interviews, she had some amazing things to say about writing. Here are some gems attributed to this remarkable author:
“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” Love that.
“I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing, and especially in the American theatre, is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this-the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea. It takes time and patience and effort to turn out a work of art, and few people seem willing to go all the way.”
“There’s no substitute for the love of language, for the beauty of an English sentence. There’s no substitute for struggling, if a struggle is needed, to make an English sentence as beautiful as it should be.”
And this one is my favorite because I totally get this. I close with it and wish you all a safe and peaceful weekend:
“I never wrote with an idea of publishing anything, of course, until I began working on Mockingbird. I think that what went before may have been a rather subconscious form of learning how to write, of training myself. You see, more than a simple matter of putting down words, writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer. There are people who write, but I think they’re quite different from people who must write.”