What Harper Lee’s New Book Means For Writers


On the coat tails of the breaking news of Harper Lee’s new novel–or really, old novel that is finally being published–there are a few things that come to my mind as I sort through the many articles published about her.

Firstly, Lee’s book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was written, because the now “second book,” “Go Set A Watchmen” was actually the FIRST book she intended to publish. Her editor convinced her to rewrite the story from another angle, thus becoming what we know and love as “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

This had me thinking about my own writing career, or really any writer’s career in general: You are at the mercy of the readers, editors, agents and publishers you work with. So many times, well meaning people will say “I would do this.” or “Have you thought about doing it like this?” And depending on the writer, she either caves into the plethora of advice, or retreats back to her hole never to share that piece of work ever again. 

I’ve decided that in order to gauge how much advice I want to incorporate into my work, I will ask myself this: Does this advice alter the “soul” of my story? If so, am I okay with that? If I am being asked to alter the “soul” of my story (meaning: I am altering the story I want to tell, not the way I want to tell it) I have to determine if the advice will do justice to the story–not to my ego.

I suppose that is why Lee was okay with rewriting the story, because she was still able to share the message she wanted to share: The soul of the story remained the same. (And clearly, taking her editor’s advice about changing the way she told the story worked out well for both her and her editor.)

The second thing that came to mind, was this: “How could Lee walk away from the top of her game?” She had publishers and readers eating literary bread crumbs out of her hands like pigeons.  Why not take advantage of the opportunity you had been given?

Lee says part of the reason she retreated from the literary world (other than being overwhelmed by the publicity of her first novel) is because she told the story she wanted to tell. And isn’t that what we writers are here to do? Whether you are a journalist, a blogger or a novelist (and everything else in between) we are mediums to the spirits of creativity.

As the highly successful “Eat Pray Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert discussed in her TED talk back in Feb of 2009, “[In} ancient Greece and ancient Rome — …[back then] People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.”

Gilbert continues, “…They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio,… and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.” (Read the whole transcript here: Elizabeth Gilbert, “Your Elusive Creative Genius” TED Talks )

I like this notion, because whenever a writer becomes too full of herself, she must remember that she is at the mercy of her muse. And that the muse is giving her the story, not her own imagination. (It also makes it a lot easier to explain to your editor why  you didn’t meet your deadline…it was that stinkin’ muse! :))

As the writer of your story, you are here to tell the story that no one else can tell. Whether it is for one person or one million persons, all that matters is that a you tell the story the way the story was needed to be told, as if it was a recipe only you as a chef know.

Like Lee, I would much rather tell ONE great story, then tell a thousand stories I never believed in at all.

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