February 9, 2015
I don’t remember how old I was when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird. No more than a boy, most likely. I do remember how I felt when I reached the last page — that odd sense of relief that the story is done mixed with the desire that it would keep going forever, as though I was at once both full and hungry. I still have that old copy. It’s beaten and dog-eared and underlined so much that entire passages are nearly illegible. It remains one of the very few novels I re-read every year.
Part of the book’s allure goes far beyond the story of Scout and Atticus and Boo Radley to the author herself. To Kill a Mockingbird is the only novel Harper Lee ever published, choosing instead to spend that last fifty years or so away from the public eye. Until last week anyway, when news broke that Lee will be publishing a second novel, Go Set a Watchman. Written before To Kill a Mockingbird, the book will feature many of the characters I first fell in love with years ago, centering around an adult Scout returning to her small Alabama town from New York to visit Atticus, her father.
I first heard the news on Facebook of all places, where I wrote it off as wishful rumor. Harper Lee has long been adamant that she would allow no more of her writing to be published. “I have said what I wanted to say,” she told a friend in an interview four years ago, “and I will not say it again.” But then I saw more posts and then more, and then it hit the major news networks and the publishing blogs and a flood of writer friends proclaimed this a high point in literary history and yes, I felt the same. I really did. Because this is Harper Lee, and she is in no small way one of the reasons I call myself a Southern writer.
I was thrilled. But only for a while.
Others voiced their skepticism. Go Set a Watchman was believed lost until recently, when Lee’s lawyer discovered it. And the timing of the announcement itself comes only months after the death of Lee’s sister Alice, who also served as Lee’s former lawyer and had long kept the outside world at bay. A subsequent interview with Lee’s editor only made things seem more suspicious: “…she’s very deaf and going blind. So it’s difficult to give her a call, you know? I think we all do our dealing through her lawyer, Tonja. It’s easier for the lawyer to go see her in the nursing home and say HarperCollins would like to do this and do that and get her permission. That’s the only reason nobody’s in touch with her. I’m told it’s very difficult to talk to her.”
Which, okay. But then Lee’s sister Alice said this, just before her death: “Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.”
So what does this mean? Is releasing this novel Harper Lee’s wish, or is this a case of a publisher taking advantage of a senile old woman for the sake of what promises to be a buttload of money? And here’s another question, one posed by an article I read: If it’s a good book, does it even matter?
The Harper Lee fan in me almost answers no to that question. But the writer in me says yes, it matters more than anything.
I’m sure millions will line up for their copy of Go Set a Watchman, but I won’t be one of them. It pains me to say that, but I have to stand by it. It is an exercise in terror to pick up a pen and make it the instrument through which you spill those things buried deep inside, precious and frightening things that no right-minded person would dare confront. And it is often an exercise in lunacy to then seek to share those things with a world that will at best ignore them and at worse pronounce them lacking. Writing requires talent and discipline and unyielding relentlessness, but it requires courage most of all. And much of that courage hinges upon the one great freedom every writer holds dear—to choose when and where and especially if those words will ever be seen at all.
February 5, 2015
Writers are always hungry for compelling topics to explore. The problem is that the best ones are mortifying.
—Ralph Keys, The Courage to Write
Despite their claims to the contrary, I really do listen when people are speaking to me. I know what they are saying and why they are saying it. I understand the points they’re trying to make or the things they’re trying to share. I’m a great listener, though that’s usually proven after the fact. During, though, is something else entirely.
Everyone from friends to family have said it’s because of my eyes. Evidently at the beginning of a conversation they’re directed outwardly toward the person to whom I’m speaking. But then there always seems to come an inevitable point at which they seem to either almost turn inward or outward even further, off into some other place as if I’ve lost interest. I assure them that’s not the case at all, and it isn’t. I am genuinely interested in what people have to say to me. Though I must say that interest has a bit of selfishness to it.
Those who know me well and talk to me often have come to accept all of this as an aspect of my passion rather than a flaw of my character. They see my eyes, know what’s going on behind them, and understand that it’s something I cannot help. It’s at that point when they all utter the same four-word question that, if answered in the affirmative, allows them some understanding and me the alleviation of guilt:
“You’re writing, aren’t you?”
The answer is always yes, I am writing. It’s a question and an answer that does not depend upon location, either. If someone in my family were to peek in the door right now and ask that question, my answer to them would be both obvious and understandable. I’m sitting at my desk with my coffee, my computer, and a stack of books. Of course I’m writing.
But where family and friends sometimes stumble is with this one simple yet profound truth—a writer is always writing. It is not merely a job and never a hobby. It is not something that can be picked up and then placed down at will. Writing is a jealous spouse or a rare flower—it demands your constant attention.
And you will give it willingly, if only because you are just as jealous of it. Writing and the writer are locked in an eternal embrace that is part devotion and part fear the one will wander too far from the other. That is why a writer is always writing. Why life itself appears not as a blank page, but one that is a hodgepodge of words that need to be ordered so the story can shine through.
It’s also the reason for my wandering eyes. There is a friendly separation between writer and world. Life unfolds itself upon the stage and the author is its audience, there not merely to applaud but to take note. Writers are the true historians. We lay a foundation of the present upon which the future can be built. That’s why every conversation, every circumstance, everything, is approached under the assumption that it’s something that can be written about.
Because, really, anything can be written about. Not because nothing is sacred, but because everything is.
That’s why a writer is always working. Always trying to piece together the next story or scene, always trying to find the wisdom in the moment.
Which leads to a curious question.
If all of what I’ve said is true—and I believe it is—can anything truly bad happen to a writer? Is there any situation, any event, that with time and healing cannot be put to the page?
I’ve yet to answer that question for myself. Have you?
February 3, 2015
The people next to us were an extended family—nine of them, arranged in descending order from grandpa to grandchild, all occupying three tables that had been placed end to end in the middle of the restaurant. Most of their attention was focused on the grandchild. It was his birthday.
He looked eleven, maybe twelve. Bright eyed and brown haired. The first volleys of acne were landing upon his chin. The boy did not seem to mind. He nodded and smiled and offered a few words here and there. It was the typical pre-teen response to nearby family, one that said I love you people but I’m now too cool to show it.
I took all this in (writers will invariably call this sort of thing Research, which sounds much better than plain nosiness) and nearly moved on to the next table when the waiter arrived. He inquired as to the quality of everyone’s meal and if anyone would like dessert. The birthday boy’s face turned the color of his encroaching acne when everyone announced the occasion.
The waiter smiled and asked, “You like magic?”
The boy shrugged and snorted in the same motion. “There’s no such thing as magic.”
“I’ll be right back,” the waiter said.
He returned with a man I assumed was a dishwasher. His jeans and apron were soiled and soggy. He smiled down at the boy and said, “Hey there, m’man. Lemme show ya somethin.”
He produced a deck of cards from his apron and fanned them out face up in one fluid motion. Flicked them back with one hand. He smiled and winked at the family, who had by then already begun inching their chairs forward for a better view.
“You believe in magic, m’man?”
Another shrug and another snort.
“Cool,” the dishwasher said. He fanned the cards out again, this time face down. “Pick a card, birthday boy. Don’t let me see now.”
It took prodding from both mom and dad, but the boy did. He took one from the middle of the deck and held it close. He peeked and then let everyone else do the same.
“Toss it back in here,” the dishwasher said. He tilted the deck up and down and wiggled it. “Anywhere you want, Bossman.”
Back in the middle it went. The dishwasher slid the cards back one-handed again and held the deck beneath the birthday boy’s chin.
“Blow,” he said.
“Come on now. That’s where the magic be.”
Neither mom nor dad could get him to budge this time. Grandma stepped in. The boy blew on the deck and the dishwasher tapped it with his forefinger. He flipped over the top card.
I didn’t have to see the card to know the trick had worked. The birthday boy’s bewilderment did that. The slaps on the table by dad and grandpa helped.
“It’s a trick,” the boy said.
The dishwasher raised his eyebrows. “Okay, let’s try again.”
Another fan of the cards. The boy picked one from towards the back this time. He placed it in the middle. He handed the deck to dad to shuffle, who handed it to grandpa, then back to the birthday boy, who shuffled once more for good measure. Then he handed the deck back to the dishwasher and smirked.
The dishwasher held the deck beneath the boy’s chin, who proceeded to not so much blow as snort.
There was a tap on the deck. The top card turned over.
“Ha! That’s not my card.”
“No?” the dishwasher asked. “You sure?”
“Dang. I dunno what happened. Guess you’re too good for me.”
I will say I was disappointed. I wanted to see the trick. And I’ll say the boy who thought himself a man was pretty disappointed too, even if he was too old to show it.
“You done with your plate there, Bossman?” the dishwasher asked. “Might as well take that on back.”
The boy nodded and picked up his plate. His mouth fell open.
His card was taped to the bottom.
The family applauded. The dishwasher bowed.
I have no idea who that boy was, but I guarantee I will always remember his birthday. I guarantee this too—whatever presents he was given, the best one came from the dishwasher. It was a reminder that no matter how old you think you are, there’s still a little kid hiding inside.
And no matter what we think, there is magic in this world.
There is magic everywhere.
January 29, 2015
Part of my end-of-the-year routine means going through the notebooks I’ve accumulated over the past twelve months. I pour over scribbles and jottings, making sure I’ve left nothing of value behind. Often, I find I haven’t. But just now I’ve come across something I’d completely forgotten. Written diagonally across the top of a page were six words, each letter capitalized to express their importance:
CAREER DAY—I MAKE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE
It was back last spring. Career Day at the local elementary school, and an acquaintance called to ask if I could come and talk about writing books. I told her writing books was not my full time profession yet. She told me when you’re dealing with a classroom of ten-year-olds, such petty distinctions don’t matter.
I went, though admittedly in a selfish kind of way. I didn’t care so much to talk about what I did nearly as much as I wanted to hear about what everyone else did. I wasn’t disappointed. That day I met firemen and police officers and truck drivers, a lady who worked on airplanes and a guy who made dentures. It was fascinating, all of it, and all of it taught me something, too—when pressed, we can all make what we do sound like the coolest thing in the world.
But it was the plastic surgeon that I remember most. Not so much for his appearance (which, fittingly enough, looked as plastic as his creations) or his demeanor (many of us consciously skipped over the tedious parts of our jobs, but I got the feeling the good doctor sincerely thought his didn’t have any). No, it was what he said that struck me then. It’s what strikes me still.
“I make beautiful people. Beautiful people don’t just happen.”
There was a short time for questions when he finished. Only one student raised a hand, a boy in the back corner who wanted to know how much it would cost for the doctor to turn him into Iron Man. The doctor laughed and did not answer. I thought it was the best question of the day.
I wanted to raise my hand and almost did. Got it as far as my shoulder before I put it back into my pocket. It was question time, not argument time. What I was thinking wasn’t a question.
Because that doctor didn’t say, “I make people beautiful.” If he had, maybe I would’ve let the whole thing go. Maybe I would’ve never made that little scribble in my notebook, and maybe I wouldn’t be writing this post. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. But he didn’t. He said, “I make beautiful people,” and that tiny change, that minuscule switching of those last two words, made all the difference.
Making people beautiful and making beautiful people are in no way the same. One is outward; shallow. It reaches no deeper than the last layer of skin. But the other? It permeates. It covers every cell. To me, the latter is much more valuable.
And the great secret is this: It’s often the beautiful people who don’t look so beautiful at all. They have wrinkles and graying hair from worrying over their kids. They have a swollen belly from too many meals with family and friends. Their eyes are droopy and their hands are rough and calloused from work. They don’t have time to make themselves look pretty. They know the value of a person lies more in the size of their heart than the size of their breasts. It the amount of compassion that matters, not the amount of hair.
That doctor was right about one thing, though. Beautiful people don’t just happen. It takes a lifetime of walking through this world, of enduring. It’s falling down and getting up and falling down again. It’s the courage to try and love and hope when you’re surrounded by failure and hate and doubt. It means getting scars that may fade but will never go away.
Give me that beauty. Because what the good doctor promises is a pretty that will end in the grave. But that other beauty, the real beauty? It will follow us from this world to the next.
January 27, 2015
This is me sitting on the front porch. Cup of coffee in one hand, a book in the other. Ignoring both, because my son is currently riding his bike up and down our quiet street.
He’s been out there for about the last twenty minutes. My son is ten now. When you’re eight and you’re a boy, bike riding becomes something of an art. The training wheels are long gone, as is that awkward stage of trying and mostly failing to find that tiny point of balance. Speed is what matters now, and awesomeness. The first is self-explanatory. The second involves such things as zooming past while pedaling backwards and making that clickclickclick sound with the chain. Or zooming past with your legs splayed out to the sides. Or with only one hand on the bars.
He just rode past again, trying an awkward combination of two of the three—“Hey Daddy, look!”
I am. I say good job. And I hope he’s far enough away that he can’t see the look of utter terror on my face.
Twenty minutes he’s been out here. I’ve been out here for ten. And for the last five of those ten minutes, I have realized he’s not wearing his helmet. It’s sitting on my truck, placed there like an oversized hood ornament.
“HEY DADDY LOOK!” Screaming past again, one hand high over his head.
My first instinct, wild and deep and urgent, was to yell for him to get his tiny butt back here and get your helmet on because don’t you see it’s dangerous out there? You could fall and crack your head right open and there would be blood, BLOOD, and don’t you think it can’t happen because all it takes is a pebble in the road that catches your tire or a puff of cold wind that gets in your eyes.
That’s what I wanted to tell him. And still do.
But then he flew past the house for the first time with his head high, the wind tousling his hair, laughing as he stood on the pedals and pumped. And I realized that was me so many years ago. That was me on some long-lost Saturday morning, happy and free.
I’ve sat here since in this old rocking chair with my coffee and my book, trying to decide what to do.
The parent in me says safety always comes first. The parent sees that wayward pebble in the middle of the road and how fast my son is going. The parent understand things like taking your grip away from the handlebars is not only risky, it’s downright stupid. That person can already see my son wobbling just before he falls, and can already hear the first convulsive yelps of a skinned knee.
But the man in me begs my tongue to stay put and say nothing. Because my son is flying. He is in space fighting aliens or in a cockpit shooting down the enemy. He’s a superhero chasing the bad guys. And besides, a helmet may be able to prevent a great many things, but it sometimes takes more than it gives. You can’t feel the wind in your hair with a helmet on. You can’t hear the birds sing or the climbs clack in the trees. You can’t be free.
I don’t know if the parent or the man will win this argument. Secretly, I’m hoping my son will get tired soon and come in for a while. It would preserve both my head and my heart.
One thing really is true, though. It is dangerous out there. That makes things like helmets absolutely necessary.
Things like laughter in the face of it, too.