Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Atticus Finch 2.0

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 15, 2015

One of the hardest things for a writer to do is to take criticism. Notes. That dreaded memo from your editor that says, “Back to Square One, baby.”

"Scout, remember that you can't make a work of fiction over until you've defeated your own demons of ego, fear, pride, and possessiveness."

So I must give major, major plaudits to Harper Lee for what she did (according to the stories we’re all reading in the Times and elsewhere) after turning in Go Set A Watchman to her editor Tay Hohoff at Lippincott in 1957.

The sensational aspect of the current Mockingbird/Watchman kerfuffle centers on Harper Lee’s radically different characterizations of Atticus Finch in the two books, specifically the less-than-knightly portrait in Go Set A Watchman. How could America’s avatar of decency turn into a racist? Why would Ms. Lee do that? Has the hero of To Kill A Mockingbird been tarnished forever?

To me, that’s not the story at all.

Since Watchman was written before Mockingbird (even though the time period in the book is later), Harper Lee did not “change” Atticus. The characterization in Watchman was the original. It was her first shot. It was Atticus 1.0.

The real story, if you ask me, is that Harper Lee rethought, reconceived, and reconfigured the Atticus of Watchman into the icon of honorableness that he became in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Think of that for a minute from a writer’s point of view. How hard is that to do? I can think of few things that are harder, not just from a practical point of view (the work, the recasting, the reimagining) but from a psychological perspective. How do you manage your emotions? How do you submerge your ego? How do you let go of expectations?

Somehow Harper Lee, God bless her, was able to do all that.

She set aside the manuscript of Watchman (the product of more than two years’ labor) when her editor Tay Hohoff declared it not ready for prime time—and went back to the drawing board.

I would give a lot of money to see Ms. Hohoff’s notes, or the correspondence between her and Ms. Lee, or to listen to a tape of their conversations over the two-plus years it took Ms. Lee to revamp the original story and turn it into To Kill A Mockingbird.

This much we know. Ms. Hohoff advised Ms. Lee to re-set the world of Watchman twenty years earlier. Take the character of Scout from a grown woman and wind her back to a little girl. Tell us the story, not through the eyes of a bitterly disillusioned daughter who had left Maycomb, Alabama and moved to New York City, but from the perspective of an innocent but whip-smart six- to nine-year-old tomboy, still at home, still in awe of her father.

Imagine doing that yourself. Could you? I’m not sure I could.

What guts. What imagination! The legend (I hope it’s true) says that Ms. Lee was so frustrated at one point in the process that she threw the whole manuscript out the window. Tay Hohoff, on the phone from New York, supposedly talked her into scrambling down to the yard and collecting the book, page by page.

Consider Harper Lee’s achievement from the point of view of Resistance.

We all know how formidable are the demons of self-sabotage. The dragon of Resistance must have been blasting Ms. Lee with the force of a flame thrower.

What, change the time period? Move the whole damn thing back twenty years? Make Scout a six-year-old? Reimagine Atticus? Make the trial of Tom Robinson (only a side-note in Watchman) into the centerpiece of the revised tale?

Recreate the character of Jem (who had already died by the time of Watchman)?

And invent Boo Radley?

Over the years Shawn has told me, from his own experiences as an editor, a number of Writer Destroying Herself horror stories. My blood runs cold each time I hear one because they’re so relatable. So I’ve Been There. So easy to see oneself succumbing to the identical impulses of pride, fear, and self-destruction.

In Shawn’s stories, he’s usually working with a talented young writer. One year. Two years. They block out a novel together. Or, like Tay Hohoff with Harper Lee, the writer submits the completed novel and Shawn takes him or her under his editorial wing. He suggests story changes.

The tragedy? The writer revolts. She assumes a posture of high dudgeon.

She refuses to make the changes.

I’ve been there.

I’ve done it myself.

It’s Resistance. Ego-driven, amateur-hour Resistance.

The story I’d love to hear is of Harper Lee’s two years reworking Watchman into Mockingbird.

That’s called being a pro. That’s being an artist.

To set aside your ego. To give credence to the opinions of another. To digest and absorb your editor’s suggestions, pass them through your own artistic gut, your temperament, your instincts. To incorporate them. To make them your own. Reject some? You bet. Turn others upside-down? Damn right.

But in the end to listen. To heed. To own the greatness of heart to allow another person to contribute, to help shape your vision.

Wow.

And what, in the end, came out of that lonely, balls-of-steel process? Nothing but Atticus Finch 2.0 and one of the most beloved novels and characters of the twentieth century (not to mention the characters of Jem, Boo Radley, and young Scout herself.)

In his review in the L.A. Times, David Ulin calls Go Set A Watchman less a novel than a “literary artifact.”

That sounds true to me, and I see nothing wrong with that. If Watchman is an artifact, it’s one all of us should study. To quote Ulin again,

How did Lee take the frame of this fiction and collapse it to create To Kill A Mockingbird, finding a narrative fluency only hinted at within this draft? How did she refine her language, her scene construction, discover a way to enlarge what are here little more than political and social commonplaces, to expose a universal human core?

How did she do it? That secret is Harper Lee’s alone. But whatever personal and artistic transformation she willed herself to undergo, it’s the same one you and I must navigate if we want to become real writers and deliver our visions, not in half-baked and premature form (or worse, blow them up because we refuse to alter our original vision), but in their full power and completeness.

Thanks, Harper Lee, for listening to your editor.

Thanks for biting the bullet.

Thanks for showing us how a real artist works.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

22 Responses to “Atticus Finch 2.0”

  1. July 15, 2015 at 6:30 am

    Oh boy, is this relatable!

    I worked on a novel for five years until my mind bled. To me, it was perfection.

    It got me an agent and editor attention. Then, they asked me to rewrite every word from scratch with almost flippant suggestions. I knew they were right but I wasn’t angry. I was exhausted. To put forth effort for five years then tear down the castle and start again? I couldn’t do it. The idea of it left me bereft. So I put it away. That was four years ago. It’s still put away.

    • July 15, 2015 at 8:09 am

      Erika, your ms deserves another look by you. Not all editors are correct. Certainly, you may need to massively revise, but if their vision does not feel right to you, or if you feel they made the suggestions flippantly, then maybe you need to keep looking. And now that it has been 4 years why not look at your work? It has tremendous value in that you wrote for five years and grew as a writer. I think we have to be careful not to give any single person authority of our work.

      • July 15, 2015 at 6:10 pm

        Thank you. I do plan on going back to it. Meanwhile I started other books and they are in the pipeline. I think time reveals a lot. Steve’s point seems to be that it takes a pro to see what time reveals and to have the gumption to bring it to pass.

    • July 15, 2015 at 8:42 am

      I have always wondered, suspected….that Harper Lee didn’t really write To Kill a Mockingbird. Or more honest to say she had a TON of help from her good friend Truman Capote and her editor.
      I suspect that the reason she became such a recluse and never wrote another book was simply that she knew she couldn’t do AGAIN because she’s never done it before.
      Mockingbird is my favorite book of all time. To me it has everything it needs to be fantastic entertainment and at the same time, so enlightened, so uplifting that for it to have been written in the time and place it was lifted it to almost a miraculous achievement.
      And it is disgusting to me that … again…I suspect…after the death of her sister, Ms Lee was given over to the hands of a lawyer who has been circling her like a vulture, waiting until she was no longer capable of managing her affairs and protecting herself…the lawyer slipped a piece of paper in front of her for her signature while she had no idea what she was agreeing too…and he made a fortune….for himself. He ‘found’ this book, which I suspect he has known about for years…and published it.
      Add in that no one cared enough about Harper Lee’s legacy to edit it, leaving her and her enlightened work to twist in the wind under the accusation of racism.
      It is a travesty. And who ever is cashing her checks is scum.
      There, how’s that for an unsubstantiated theory?
      But I’ll bet anything that a fully aware Harper Lee would NOT have agreed to this.

      • Jere Ownby
        July 15, 2015 at 9:16 pm

        There is a new PBS documentary out that may well change your mind.

    • July 21, 2015 at 9:57 am

      Took me 20 years to pull my manuscript off the shelf. But I finally did it!

  2. July 15, 2015 at 7:02 am

    This expose is brilliant. Not only does it address the profound requirements to write well, it also speaks to the personal transformation required too. I was told that in order to write about my mom’s suicide and incarcerations, I had to go much deeper into her story, her pain, and my relationship to her pain. I didn’t want to go there. It was too painful and I’m not someone who tends to shy away from pain. Now life is plunging me into her story. Although the process is taking me to prolific places, I’d like off the ride, thank you very much! Maybe a gift will come of this journey. Perhaps with time I’ll be able to narrate her story with the depth and courage that consummate art demands.

    I really enjoy and benefit from these posts about writing. Thank you!

  3. Mary Doyle
    July 15, 2015 at 7:08 am

    Thanks for looking at this from the perspective of Harper Lee’s fortitude and her ultimate defeat against Resistance. Wouldn’t we all be the poorer for it had she not taken this battle on?

  4. July 15, 2015 at 7:43 am

    Just to be the devil’s advocate here. We haven’t read the original story. We are making the assumption that the final version is better because it is popular. But maybe the original was Harper Lee’s real story, more authentic to her.

    Sometimes it seems to me that editors are ready to jump on a story and make it their own. Maybe a “real” writer won’t go along with totally changing her story.

  5. July 15, 2015 at 8:00 am

    It’s a great inner battle to allow someone else’s (often flippant) opinion dictate the nature of my characters and the direction of my story. That said, I do realize that letting go of my need to be “right” and trusting the POV of an experienced, competent editor, can be the difference between mediocre and extraordinary. I’ve learned that “letting go” does not mean surrender. It means improvement.

    • July 15, 2015 at 8:20 am

      Imho – it’s “your” story only if you are writing it for yourself. If you want others to read it and like it – no better way than to get all the input you can get. The ego of the Pro is fulfilled by the brilliant end product and the process to get there is battle … or War of Art. :-)

  6. July 15, 2015 at 8:02 am

    I worry I will always have the ego and/or impatience that won’t let me spend 5 years, even 2 years, on a book.

    Maybe it’s working alone that does that.

  7. July 15, 2015 at 8:04 am

    I agree with everything here. However, I do believe that the original ms of Watchman could have been developed into a fine novel very different from Mockingbird. A novel truer to the nature of the original Watchman likely would not have sold back then, but in these times may be just the thing. I also wonder what it did to Harper Lee to have her very personal and confessional ms about the flaws of her family put aside for a very different story. Don’t get me wrong, kudos to her for going on to develop a very different fine story. But I write memoir, and the kind of thing Harper Lee was trying to do back then was ahead of her time, and it took much courage to get Atticus, based on her father, onto the page in an honest, unvarnished way. I have to wonder what it did to her psychologically to have this not validated in some way, even if it was not published or developed to its fullest at the time.

    • July 15, 2015 at 10:10 am

      Very gracefully put. That is the point I was trying to make. Thanks.

  8. July 15, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Mr. Pressfield – I blew you a kiss after reading this post – I hope you felt it :) This is why I follow every word you say and tell everyone I come across to do the same.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for teaching us about grit, resistance and getting over ourselves by getting out of our own way.

    Thank you.

  9. July 15, 2015 at 8:14 am

    Dear Steven,

    You wrote:
    “The story I’d love to hear is of Harper Lee’s two years reworking Watchman into Mockingbird.”

    I wish you’d written:
    “The story I’d love to write is of Harper Lee’s two years reworking Watchman into Mockingbird.”

    I bet with your understanding of the Resistance and the War of Art – you’d be the perfect artist to research, imagine and tell that story. I’d be thrilled if you did it. Isn’t her story at least as deserving as that of Alexander or of the 300 Spartans? :-)

    Thank you for all your posts and help for aspiring writers and artists.
    V

  10. Marvin Waschke
    July 15, 2015 at 10:15 am

    At last someone has said something valuable about Mockingbird and Watchman instead of gossip. Thank you Steven.

  11. July 15, 2015 at 10:55 am

    This changed my perspective on on Go Set… to it being a part of a metastory.

    Its all connected.

  12. July 15, 2015 at 11:41 am

    I never thought about it like that… your (now obvious) take on Harper Lee’s change of characterization is spot-on! Totally redeems it for me, maybe I’ll let myself read Watchman now.

  13. Charmaine Cordero
    July 15, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    As an English teacher surrounded by many other panicking educators afraid to crack open the new novel, THANK YOU for the perspective. I will present this to my colleagues and my students as a reminder of the power of the writing process. My students would love for everything to be perfect and publishable on the first try, but that’s not how it works. And teachers who are afraid of the characterization of Atticus in this novel need to remember to practice what we preach about working and reworking until the piece is right.

    And now, I think, I have some reading to do.

    Thanks again!

  14. July 15, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    Is it so hard to believe that an idealistic young lawyer Atticus could with time become a jaded cynic after 20 years of experience (this was a dynamic time period in America). We don’t want Atticus to grow into a racist. But reality doesn’t care what we want. Authors know that characters evolve sometimes of their own volition and they behave in ways we don’t predict. That’s great art and writing. I am willing to believe the young Atticus was against racial prejudice and that forces in the world and in his life changed him over 20 years. That happens. People change. Sometimes for the worse.

  15. July 21, 2015 at 9:58 am

    Thank you, Steven, for putting everything back into perspective!