Writing with the Masters 4: Harper Lee

By: Jennifer Fiorile

When I think of famous authors who’ve made significant contributions to literature, I think of the phrase “a prolific writer,” someone who’s written book upon book, countless poems, articles, etcetera. Writers who’ve proven themselves, time and time again, to be expertly skilled at their craft, gain our approval and admiration. Yet, there’s a lot of power in making a simple but strong statement and just leaving it at that. Minimalism is not just a fad you see on social media; it’s a meaningful way of living in the world, but it also requires an immense amount of restraint and careful thinking. When it comes to writing, there’s one author in particular who made a powerful statement in the literary world with just one book: Harper Lee.

Lee’s book, To Kill a Mockingbird, was released in 1960, becoming an instant hit and American classic, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. For most high schoolers in the US, this is required reading and the themes presented in it remain just as relevant today as they did in the 1960s. The book is told from the perspective of the protagonist, Scout Finch, as she recounts tales from her childhood, growing up in Alabama in the 1930s. The main plot point is about her father, Atticus, an attorney in their small town, who is appointed to defend a black man who’s been falsely accused of rape by a white woman and her father. The truthful and caring way that Lee handles the topics of race and the dichotomies of good and evil within all people is what has made this work both a critical and impactful examination of humanity. For 55 years, Harper Lee never produced a single other book or written work (though she did start a few projects that she never deemed good enough for publication). In 2015, she published one other book before her death, a prequel to Mockingbird, called Go Set a Watchman. In addition to her laconic approach to writing, she rarely granted interviews or gave speeches; in fact, she remained largely reclusive from the public eye and perhaps because of that, the sense of her being a legendary author grew.

When it comes to our own writing, we can reinterpret Lee’s way of life by considering the idea that the less we say, the more power our words have. Lee felt no great rush to expand upon her work (or capitalize on her fame) and felt no need to defend or explain it. Her work speaks for itself. She trusted the words that she'd used and trusted readers to interpret the work for themselves. When we write a piece, we may feel the need to help readers understand precisely what we mean, but within our extended explanations, we might communicate that we don't trust the reader to grasp our meaning or decipher their own meaning.

A great written work is often defined by the fact that when we finish reading it, we’re really clear on the message the author wanted to communicate without being banged over the head by their meaning. A great written work leads you gently to its purpose and lets you discover its meaning yourself. And it doesn't have to send home its own point exclusively, allowing no room for other ideas. What also makes a book or essay great are the ideas that it can inspire inside of you, bringing up memories and experiences and making connections that you wouldn't have otherwise thought of. It’s the intellectual and emotional connection that we make with a piece and its author that engenders more creative thinking on the part of the reader. Lee’s most famous book continues to connect with readers all these years later because she invites us into her simple world and shows us around, letting us look in each corner and meet everyone in town. Perhaps she never felt much need to show us more because what we’d seen was the world from her perspective, succinctly communicated in just one book. When you sit down to write your next poem, essay, or story, remember that your readers are coming along with you for the journey. If you make them feel invited and introduce them to your world or idea, they’ll be eager to follow.

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