"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.
Write, Edit, Repeat
Now that I have finished writing the core of my latest manuscript, the time has come for the editing process. Several friends are reviewing the work to offer their critiques and then 2–3 rounds of editing will occur. While this step may sound boring, and a few years ago I would have agreed, I have come to enjoy the editing process.
The most important reason editing is necessary is to improve the quality of the work. When I write, I do so quickly, performing scant editing along the way. Some days I feel like a 5-year-old trying to paint a house. I probably used the right color, but you can be sure there are several spots that need to be redone before I show my work off to others. Similarly, to get the best manuscript possible takes time and, quite often, the insight of others. In addition to removing the grammatical and typographical errors, I want to cut out extemporaneous verbiage and rework tired phrases. My question is not “Did I say it well?” but “Is this the best way to say what I have to say?” Obviously, these queries often elicit radically different responses.
Roman poet Marcus Fabius Quintilianus spoke to this issue in AD 65 when he said: “Prune what is turgid, elevate what is commonplace, arrange what is disorderly, introduce rhythm where the language is harsh, modify where it is too absolute.”
One of the hidden benefits of the editing process is it reminds me I am not as good a writer as I imagine myself to be. Revising a work again and again is an exercise in humility. Your initial thoughts may have been sounded good in your head, and seemed fine upon early review, but when you look at a work again and again you learn how much you have to grow, as a writer and a person. You have nightmares about mistakes infesting your work like termites in an old attic. Not surprisingly, Quintilianus had something to say about this as well.
“The best method of correction is to put aside for a time what we have written, so that when we come to it again it may have an aspect of novelty, as of being another man’s work; in this way we may preserve ourselves from regarding our writings with the affection we lavish upon a newborn child.”
I suppose there is another similarity between writing and newborns – both need to be changed from time to time to keep them fresh.
While I may be a Southern California native, I am not, nor have I ever been, the stereotypical surfer dude. Some experiments at boogie boarding in my adolescent years is as close as I came to riding the waves. I would like to blame my flawed eyesight for this, but I suspect I also was never good at reading the signs.
Now I am trying to ride the waves again, metaphorically speaking. As a writer, I enjoyed some early success with my first book, but then there was a lull in the waves, as it were. Sales dropped off and I was left with the question of how to make them rise again. But one thing I have come to learn about the world of publishing is that it is more like a water park or swimming pool—you have to make your own waves.
So here I go with my latest attempt at boosting interest, and sales. I am distributing copies of the book strategically and the next big wave is coming: a bargain basement sale on the electronic version of Chasing Deception. While I don’t expect sales in the tens of thousands, I am learning this is a step-by-step process. We’ll see how far this wave carries me before I plan my next move. I also have two other writing projects in the works, giving me a chance to get better at making, and riding, those waves.
A Lesson in Humility
If you have ever written anything from a Post-it Note to a full-length book, you know all composition is fraught with the possibility of error.
We all chuckle when we see a text message or social media post with a typo in it. Such quick communication is prone to error and the mistakes often garner more attention than the original message ever would.
When writing something of greater length and importance, giving it more than a cursory glance is critical. When I wrote Chasing Deception, for example, I went through several rounds of editing for content and grammar. Since it is a self-published work, changes were being made even on the day of submission, making the work that much more prone to mistakes worming themselves on to the pages.
Two months after original publication, I realized I should take advantage of the self-publishing format and correct any typos I could find. Knowing the best way to catch errors is to read your work out loud, my wife and I spent a 3-day weekend taking turns reading through the entire 81,000-word manuscript. I discovered two very important things in this process: 1) about 97% of the book was just fine, 2) but the last 3% requiring improvement was not insignificant. We made changes here and there and brought the work as close to 100% as we could.
Throughout this process, I learned three valuable lessons. First, I am so thankful to my friends and family who purchased a book with errors but have been gracious enough to still say nice things about what I did with the story and characters. I tell them it is like having one of those stamps with the upside-down biplane on it and the errors improve its value. They’re even nice enough to laugh at that one.
Second, I have been reminded of the wellspring of wisdom residing within my lovely wife, who constantly seeks to reign in my enthusiasm with a full measure of patience. She firmly believes if you can find the time to make something good, you should take just a little more time to make it better. She embodies the Lexus slogan of having a “Relentless Pursuit of Excellence”.
Finally, I think I am becoming more sympathetic when I see typos on billboard, fliers or signs as I drive around streets and freeways of Southern California. While I still notice the errors, I might be a little less likely now to comment about them. Something about throwing stones while living in a glass house comes to mind.
And, of course, the next time I am ready to submit a final draft to an agent or publisher, I think I’ll start warming up my reading voice.
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?
Thankful for Perspective
With Thanksgiving just a few days away, I’m like everyone else who is concerned about who’s bringing what to dinner and what time we need to arrive.
I suppose it is a national pastime to obsess over the minutiae of these celebrations. If an item is forgotten or was not in stock, we devote a seemingly inordinate amount of time lamenting over its absence and strategizing how we can resolve the dilemma.
Don’t get me wrong. I love all the treats that grace our holiday table. If there were no fried onions for the green bean casserole, you’d better believe I would hop into the car and hunt for the elusive item.
Considering how little some people have, all of this frantic scrambling seems a bit excessive to say the least. As a teacher, from time to time a student will tell me about the difficulties his or her family is having with paying the bills or putting food on the table. We help where we can, but we know there is much more need out there we may never discover. Bearing this in mind, it is imperative to remember how fortunate so many of us are.
The big project on my plate this next week is publishing a book. Yet for all the energy I have poured into this effort, at this point I simply am pursuing a dream and not relying on the success of this venture to be the determining factor in whether or not we eat this week. I may be doing every thing I can to turn a profit, but I will not suffer catastrophic financial disaster if my dreams do not come to fruition. My ego would be bruised and our household budget would be tighter to be sure, but those damages could be repaired in time.
So, as we enter the season of turkey and trimmings, may we realize how blessed we are and take a moment to give thanks for what we have. Possessing such perspective may be the best gift of all.
I've been writing stories and taking photos since I was old enough to hold a pencil and stand behind a tripod.