"He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being."
— Uncle Jack Finch in Go Set a Watchman
As a child, we have our heroes. Whether they are on the TV or movie screen or a bit closer to home, these deities are set apart from mortal men and women. For many, those heroes are our parents or other adults in our lives. We revel in their positive character traits and are blinded to their foibles. They can do little, if any, wrong.
As we age, the veneer wears off and the faults that were always there readily appear. Sometimes the flaws are minor and common to the lot of humanity. At other points, they are so significant that learning of them rocks us to our very core.
Such is the case with Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. Many Americans were raised on Lee's first book, To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been taught to teens for decades. I know it a bit better than most because I teach it every year in my freshman English classes. One of the key themes we highlight is the concept of Atticus Finch as ideal father. He always has sage advice, protects his children from harm and defends the rights of the oppressed against their oppressors.
Even when he knows he won't win a case that is clearly stacked against his African American defendant, Atticus still fights the good fight because that's what good people do. His daughter, Scout, remains proud of him even when Tom Robinson loses in court and eventually his own life. At times, Atticus Finch seems like a fabled knight on a one-man crusade.
Well, that myth in dashed in Watchman. It's 20 years later and Scout is no longer a child, having abandoned more than just her childhood nickname. Jean Louise smokes, has no problem kissing boys or cussing and has lived it up a bit in New York City. On a pilgrimage home to see her arthritic father in still mostly rural Macomb, Alabama, she learns things about him that shatter her perception of Atticus Finch, defender of the defenseless.
The storyline aside, there are some technical glitches in the meta-narrative that connects the two stories. Clearly the idea of the Tom Robinson case was firm in Lee's mind when she wrote Watchman, but there are differences between the cases in the two books that will set the teeth of loyal Mockingbird readers on edge. I'm not a big fan of the third person narration, but it's a modified third person, since we really see the world from her point of view. Also, there is some repetition that a good editor would have pruned away. It's like when your favorite TV show has a guest writer and she strays from the accepted canon of the series.
These issues aside, there's a reason her publishers told her to put Watchman aside and write a prequel. Mockingbird is a positive story of one man fighting against an unjust system. It has its complexities to be sure, but at its heart it is a fairy tale. Perhaps with the death and injustice it's more like a Grimm's Fairy Tale than a Disney fable, but morally muddled characters like Mayella Ewell and Walter Cunningham Sr. still pale in comparison to the virtuous Atticus Finch.
In Watchman, however, Atticus has feet of clay. The moral purity Scout saw in him is peeled away, layer by layer, until we see his view of African Americans is much less enlightened than we previously thought and he has little desire to promote immediate societal change. His approach flies in the face of Dr. King's comments at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism."
What's brilliant in this book, and what it should be remembered for, is the climatic scene between Jean Loiuse and Atticus. This is where his beliefs are laid bare, and the woman who once idolized her father completely loses faith in him. It would be easy for this moment to be orchestrated solely by Jean Louise herself, but the reader is blown away when Uncle Jack reveals Atticus had arranged the firewood and kindling for his own destruction and all she needed to do was strike the match.
Jean Loiuse struggles, as do we, when we're forced to see Atticus as anything less than the perfect dad. "As she welcomed him to the human race, the stab of discovery made her tremble a little." Perhaps you were stung when you discovered your own father was just "a man with a man's heart and a man's failings…." Maybe you revered Atticus because the man who fathered you was bereft of the values and integrity imbued in this simple country lawyer.
In the end, no matter how much our view of Atticus Finch may have been tarnished, Lee offers us a message of hope. She asserts, in a much less grandiose fashion that we had previously believed, that Atticus is fighting for what sees as good. And, in this era of using technology as a weapon to assail those who hold opposing viewpoints, Lee suggests through the words of Uncle Jack that we should always offer the counsel of a friend rather than the venom of an enemy.
"[T]he time your friends need you is when they're wrong, Jean Louise. They don't need you when they're right."
That's something Atticus Finch, and the rest of us, should all stand for.
My Apollo 13 Moment
Being a child of the 80s, I am, at heart, a space buff. I poured over my kids’ science magazine detailing the Space Shuttle's specifications. I was devastated when Challenger exploded in 1986 and Columbia did as well in 2003. Then when Atlantis landed for the final time in July 2011, I was saddened we had lost something as a country. Our collective drive to discover, I suppose.
Although the Apollo 13 failed lunar mission took place before I was born, I watched with fascination many years later the Ron Howard film of the same name. I knew from history that the crew lived, but I was riveted to the screen as astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise scrambled to cannibalize their supplies in order to limp back safely to earth. They realized they had to give up on their dream so they could live to fly another day.
As a writer, I have discovered that the writing, pitching, publication and sales of each book seem almost as complex as a space mission. There are so many items on the checklist and if any of them go wrong, the entire project can crash and burn. For full-time writers, such failure might mean less food on the dinner table. Thankfully, that’s not the case with me.
On a recent book project, I realized I had to jettison my plans and disassemble the component parts. The manuscript, which was written as much from my heart as my imagination, was good but not good enough. I was passionate about the tale, but those I trust broke the news to me it wasn’t as well crafted as I thought. After the first person told me this, I dug in my heels and refused to listen to the sage advice for months on end. It took some deep reflection, insight received at a recent writers conference and the counsel of another close adviser before I knew for sure the project needed to be shelved.
Now, all is not lost. Parts of the book may find their way into future projects. They will need to be re-tooled to be sure, but like Lovell, Swigert and Haise, I am not willing to lose sight of the greater mission. Being a writer has never been just a passing fancy for me, so I won't end my career because of one shipwreck. I’m taking what I can from the experience and moving on.
One of the space-related groups I was part of as a teen had the following motto: ad astra per ardua (to the stars, with effort).
With a little effort, I am hoping to soar to reach my own stars.
The Hidden Rooms of the Soul
If you’re like me, you probably have a favorite author or collection of authors you like to read. Right now I am in the middle of a series about time travel written in a style that reminds me a bit of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. This author is well known for his mythic fiction, so this series is something different. As an established author, I imagine it was easy to sell this concept to his agent and publisher, since they both know people will pick up his work based on name recognition alone.
For those of us who are not “internationally acclaimed” authors, we have a harder time when we switch gears in our writing. This summer I was planning to write the sequel to my first novel. I had done some research and even worked out a secondary plot line with a book editor. But then I was inspired to write a practical non-fiction title that has received some early positive feedback but has put me on the hunt for a new agent because this work isn’t in his area of expertise. I am having to rebrand myself a bit and counting on the same people to buy my second book is much less of a sure thing.
The real problem comes when you start talking about my third book. Several years ago I wrote a short story that scared me so much I shoved it in a drawer for a year. It was creative, but it touched on themes that were surprising to say the least. After a writers’ conference where the keynote speaker talked about “going to the dark places” and being willing to pull our inspiration from such journeys, I retrieved the story and made it the foundation for another novel. The initial response for the piece was not as positive as was my first book, so I put it away again. I am taking it out a third time and passing it around to a couple of friends to see if these initial impressions were right or if I need to try harder to revise and sell this project.
The biggest worry I have is one of creating a consistent reader base. People who liked my first book want a sequel, which I plan to write next summer. But will these same people buy a book that is a bit experimental in both form and content? Will an agent who knows what I have written before want to take a chance on something different? Since my first work was self-published, will a traditional house be willing to make the same “gamble”, especially considering how risk-adverse the industry has become?
I don’t think publishing is a charitable pursuit, nor do I think authors should blithely ignore the conventions of branding and marketing, but if writing comes from the soul, then sometimes we need to open rooms others would leave closed and compel readers to take a look inside. For what is hidden in the secret places often reveals who we are or who we may become.
Wanna peak? I’m hoping you do.
Half way to a brand-new world
Publishers often encourage writers to stick to one genre. Stephen King is not about to start writing romance novels any more than J.K. Rowling is going to take us on a spaceship to explore the galaxy next door. And, if you want to jump from fiction to nonfiction, then you are in for similar challenges.
As a reporter I wrote nonfiction, but I have always thought my book-length projects would grow out of the realm of fiction. I was a storyteller and there was no way I could write about cold, hard facts for that long in a way that would interest me, much less anyone else. I have since come up with some ideas, but those are collaborative products where I would be partnering with others to channel their brilliance. Doing it on my own seemed impossible. Coming away from my last writers’ conference, I brainstormed ideas with my wife about how to turn my first novel into a trilogy. I was set to write book two in the series this summer and the third one next summer.
Then one day an idea popped in my head: why don’t I take some of my experiences as a teacher and use them to help parents help their kids? Ruminating over this concept for a few days, I christened the project High School Declassified and decided to launch a new blog, and write the first draft of a book while I design parent workshops to create a platform for the project when, and if, it does get off the ground.
The Monday after I started summer vacation I began to write. Instead of having to force ideas out, they came naturally. With a little bit of planning and structure, the words flowed from mind to fingers to computer screen like a rushing river. Now, to be sure, this is a rough draft and may require radical revision, but I was excited by the progress.
This may be my one significant work of nonfiction for a very long time, but if so, it is a delight to be well on my way to a brand-new world of writing. I am looking forward to what I discover in this enchanting land.
For Christmas, my wife bought me the DVDs for the one-season cult classic “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.” Now the show itself, a parody of classic westerns, offers a mostly harmless way of filling a free hour or two on a weekend afternoon, there are larger themes just below its campy surface.
Throughout the story, which takes place at the end of the 19th century, the protagonist is eager to find out about “The Coming Thing”. This drive taps into the collective sense of anticipation that engages the populace every decade, century or millennium. We all peer into the future with a mixture of emotions and for many, these are feelings of anticipation and hope.
For myself, my eyes have been opened to a book-writing career that has just begun. Having sold my first 100 copies, my free time is filled with building my platform and expanding the markets for my work.
This lesson transfers well beyond the world of writing. We all have a “Coming Thing” in our lives. Whether we are deciding to get a new job, return to school, start a new relationship or travel to an exciting or exotic land, our lives are filled with opportunities for change.
Too often we shrink away from these opportunities in fear and trepidation. We loathe change because it means adding some chaos and unpredictability into our well-ordered lives. Even if things are going rather poorly, at least we know what to expect from the future.
I say we should seize the spirit of the new year and embrace the idea of change and discovery. I have learned that even when I take a wrong turn on the way to my destination, at least the scenery usually is interesting. Perhaps it’s time to enjoy a bit of the scenery life has to offer.
So, what’s “The Coming Thing” in your life and what are you willing to do to make it a reality?
I've been writing stories and taking photos since I was old enough to hold a pencil and stand behind a tripod.