How Harper Lee Ruined My Life and Other Stories We Tell Ourselves

I don’t usually play favorites (being a person of wide and varied tastes and rather little patience for picking and choosing one over another). But when I do, I pick To Kill a Mockingbird. Sorry, All-The-Rest-Of-The-Books-In-The-World.

In the year 2000, a Charlotte bookstore down the street from where we were living displayed a signed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird priced at $160. I went back to the store three or four times and stared at that volume, in its glass case by the check-out counter. At that time, it was a choice between groceries for a month and that book. Alas, I chose food. I think that you will agree, my priorities were very, very wrong. Eating is highly overrated.

But this isn’t a blog about reading. It’s about writing. Which is why I’m going to talk about how Harper Lee’s personal story ruined twenty years of my life as a writer.

You see, Lee wrote a few things before To Kill a Mockingbird, and a few things after, but never anything of its size nor significance. Why? Because who has time? But in 1956, she received a gift from her agent. It was an envelope containing an entire year’s salary and a note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please.” She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.

For years I have wondered whether, if someone gave me a year’s salary, I could write something like that. Surely, with a whole year to dedicate to it, I could finish a novel, something marketable. Maybe the next great piece of American fiction, sure, why not? But seeing as how the Year’s-Salary-Fairy seems to have neglected my house as of late, I am stuck writing little things–magazine articles and blog entries and so on–in between making money and tending children and trying to keep groceries in the house. Groceries have so often gotten between me and what I really want in life.

So anyway, THAT was the story I told myself to explain why I have never written anything great, anything truly noteworthy. Poor, poor me. And THAT is how I whittled away my twenties, my thirties, without ever writing even one significant, sustained work of fiction or nonfiction. Because nobody ever gave me a year off from work.

I’ll be turning 40 in October and I FINALLY figured out, despite Lee’s misleading and thoroughly discouraging life story, that my full time job and kids are not what has been holding me back. It’s been me all along. Well, me and Harper Lee, of course.

Did you know that if you wake up an hour early every single morning and dedicate that hour to writing, that you will end up writing for 7 full hours per week? Yes, that’s right, I did math. Don’t stop me now, I’m on a roll.

Seven hours per week comes out to 364 hours in a year.

If you ask the experts on Google and Yahoo! answers, you find out that it takes anywhere from 80-250 hours to write the first draft of a novel. Numbers confuse me, but I’m pretty sure even 250 is smaller than 364.

So it turns out I didn’t need the Year’s-Salary-Fairy after all. I may not be writing a masterpiece, but I’m writing, and that’s enough. I’m approximately 60 hours into my novel, and about 2/3 of the way through the plot at 75,000 words.

(Not that I’d turn the fairy away if she showed up. In case you’re reading this, Fairy. I love you. Do you like cookies?)

Just for fun, check this synopsis & analysis of my favorite book. As a rather thoroughly rule-abiding English major, I can’t strictly approve anything that has the flavor of Cliff Notes. This has nothing the flavor of Cliff Notes.

“Only a jive-ass fool would bother capping a mockingbird, because all them bitches do is just drop next level beats for your enjoyment. So all my girl Harper trying to say is that rattin on Boo Radley wouldn’t do no good. It’ll only rid the hood of one more true blue playa.”

Maybe I won’t sue Lee after all. Because, obviously, capping that mockingbird would … you know. Not be cool. Aww yea foo.

P.S. What stories have you told yourself to keep from pursuing your dreams? When did you realize you didn’t have to listen to those stories any more? Tell me in the comments!