Happy birthday, Harper Lee—and thank you for changing my life
From the first time I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I fell in love with the book. I saw myself in Scout, and Boo Radley still brings tears to my eyes when I reread the book. I’ve been rereading the book since high school….which is more years than I care to admit, and each time, I am struck by the skill in the writing, made all the more impressive by the fact that this was Lee’s debut novel. But Lee hasn’t only taught me about writing and craft; she’s taught me about life. She’s a role model of mine, and at the age of 34, I can only hope to be like her when I grow up. These are some of the things she’s taught me.
Do what makes you happy
Harper Lee didn’t single-mindedly pursue writing. While she wrote in college (and edited the humor magazine of the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa), she was accepted into a law program there that let undergrads start their law degrees. The demands of the law program forced her to stop editing the humor magazine, and eventually, she realized that writing was what she loved. Could you imagine a world without To Kill a Mockingbird? Life is short; what would have happened if Lee chose law because it was “more lucrative” or more secure?
There’s more to the South than I thought
I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. I wasn’t familiar with the South, or Southern literature, at all. I had lived in NJ all my life; it wouldn’t be until graduate school that I would leave the Northeast, and eventually, go South. The book opened up a world of social issues and quirky characters, exposing me to stereotypes, while at the same time, breaking them, as well. Up to that point, I had only read Civil War-era Southern literature books, like Gone With the Wind. Lee brought a whole new South to my mind, along with questions about just how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same.
One year can make all the difference
After leaving law school, Harper Lee wanted to focus on writing. But as anyone living in New York can tell you, you still need to earn a living while writing a book, especially in NYC, if you like to live under a roof and still eat. Lee’s friends, Michael and Joy Brown, knew she wanted to be a writer, and for Christmas 1956, they gave her a check that provided her with a year’s worth of funding, and told her to use the year to write. The book that emerged? Mockingbird. Are we all as lucky to have funding for us to go write, unfettered by daily obligations? No, but we can all buckle down and pursue what we love for a year, and see what happens.
It’s never too late
While Lee published Mockingbird, she was 34. When the upcoming Go Set a Watchman is published, she’ll be 89. So much hype is made of young new authors with 7-figure advance debut novels – but Lee was able to explode the literary community with news of the “new” book. Despite the controversy surrounding the book, this was inspiring to see; this reminded me that it’s never too late to do what you love.