Harper Lee has died. She is the woman behind one of the most read, taught, and influential novels of the 20th century. She retreated from the public spotlight, and never wrote another novel in her life (at least not one that any of us know about). The recently published Go Set a Watchman is actually an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.
While I am not the acolyte many people are, I read Mockingbird in high school like so many others. (I should reread it; I know I missed huge portions of the meanings and symbolism.) The power of the written word to change people’s lives is writ large in the great love for this book. It’s one of those books that matters, but it mattered so much to people that Lee ran from the fame it brought. She was the polar opposite of her friend Truman Capote, who ran headlong into that fame and held on to it until it killed him. She was also a little like J.D. Salinger in that she became a mystery and cipher, although from what I gather she was a much better and nicer human being that he ever could have hoped to be.
The first rule of good writing is write what you know, and Harper Lee followed that rule so beautifully and perfectly. She knew the world of Mockingbird because it was basically her home town. She understood the motivations and emotions of the characters she created. She saw their pettiness and prejudice for what they were, as well as their kindness and generosity. And she imagined a world where the meanness of life didn’t crush all hope, even when the cause was lost.
It has nothing to do with mockingbirds or Lee’s famous novel, but I kind of feel like this song is a good way to honor her. This version is probably my favorite after the original, and its gentle sadness seems appropriate. May Nelle Harper Lee’s transition to the next plane be full of peace.
Here’s the second entry in what’s going down as Bitter and Sarcastic Christmas. (I’m not feeling especially bitter, just kind of worn down. Expect New Year’s entries to be equally downbeat.) While yesterday’s piece from David Sedaris is my favorite, he’s much better known for the “Santaland Diaries.” It’s the chronicle of his time working as an Elf for Macy’s, and it’s just as dark and wonderful as “Six to Eight Black Men.” NPR plays it every Christmas, so you may well have heard it before, but please enjoy it again. Or for the first time. And if you’ve never read a David Sedaris book before, please, for the love of all that is good and holy, get your hands on as many of them as you can as quickly as possible.
I’ve been neglectful this Christmas season–partly out of busyness, partly out of a bit of apathy, partly because I’ve had a cold. (On a side note, can I please be done coughing now?) And if you’ve been following me for any length of time, you already know that my patience for Christmas music is rather limited. Luckily for all of us, this track isn’t music.
David Sedaris is a terrifically funny writer. Dry, satirical, and occasionally horrifying. This particular piece is probably my favorite of his. I almost hurt myself laughing the first time I read it. The title won’t make sense until about halfway through, but trust me, it’s sooooooo worth it.
Just a little Christmas fun.
When I started up my computer this morning, I saw the news that author Elmore Leonard had died. I wasn’t an Elmore Leonard fan; I’ve never read any of his books. Heck, I never even saw the movie version of Get Shorty. But I fancy myself a writer, so this is the death of a comrade in arms, a fellow wordsmith. Granted, he was a much more famous, successful, and arguably better wordsmith; nonetheless, we are however vaguely connected by this thing we both love and agonize over.
As anyone who has ever tried to write anything will tell you, writing is hard. It’s a struggle to put the right words to your thoughts and feelings. It’s terrifying to show those words to another person. In my job as a writing tutor, it is both company and my personal policy to try to be as encouraging and positive as possible, which I freely admit is sometimes difficult. But positive feedback and constructive criticism are the best ways to encourage writers. Come to think of it, they’re the best ways to encourage anyone at anything.
Elvis Costello turns writing into a metaphor for a romance in this song. It’s not the first time that’s been done in a pop song (see here for another famous example), but no one’s ever done it more cleverly. Like most Costello, there’s a slyness to the lyrical twists and turns that disguises a lot of different emotions. That’s one of the hallmarks of a good writer: Being able to wring as many meanings out of a few words as you possibly can, leaving room for both your own intentions and the audiences’ interpretations. Because that’s the most important thing about writing–or any other art–that a lot of people don’t think about. Once you finally finish (or give up, because no writing is ever truly finished) and send it out into the world, it ceases to be yours. It becomes the world’s.