Watchman: Cynicism or Hope

9780062409850Publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has set off controversy on two levels. For writers, the book may represent the industry at its most cynical: publishing an inferior book by a cherished author who may no longer be competent to decide her own literary legacy. Articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker have raised issues about possible manipulation, as well as about the book’s provenance. For readers, the book presents the unsettling picture that Atticus may be fundamentally racist. As writers and readers, do we greet Watchman with depressing cynicism, or is there room for hope?

Whether or not we like to hear them, Watchman tells us a few things about the business of writing. Lee is said to have written Watchman first, even though it’s set about 20 years later. An editor guided Lee to write a new book based on her flashbacks, which turned out to be excellent advice. To Kill a Mockingbird is the far stronger book. 9780060935467It was probably also a better fit for the market at that time. In other words, the editor knew what she was doing when she didn’t publish the original book. Lee’s first instincts were not without validity: her story of the disappointment of a young Southern woman in the racism of her otherwise honorable father is complex and worth telling (with some revision). But not every story worth telling is going to be supported to market. And the kind of editorial help which Lee received as an unpublished writer rarely happens anymore. Publication of Watchman also reveals that a weak book will get published if it can be turned into a publishing event. Publishing is less about art than it is about business. That’s the reality check.

At the same time, Watchman gives writers some grounds for hope. First, that they can improve – that rejection doesn’t mean they should give up. Lee went back to work and wrote an amazingly stronger book, with better drawn characters, greater tension, more compelling action, smarter dialogue and bigger heart. That editor performed a huge service in sending Lee back to her desk. But I’d like to think that Lee would have improved even without that intervention. Like many writers, she leaves clues for herself on the page – my second basis for hope. The flashback scenes in Watchman are indeed the most vivid, and in time I believe Lee would have recognized that. She has Jean Louise/Scout ask herself: “What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present?” (p. 225) Writers should pay heed to the messages left by themselves. Finally, writers often start with something they need to puzzle out from their own lives, but art benefits from distance and detachment. To me, Watchman reads like an autobiographical story. Truman Capote once asserted with respect to Lee’s depiction of Boo Radley in Mockingbird, that “Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true.” Watchman includes long tracks of lecture – the kind of thing real people may have to learn from, but which is boring for readers. Mockingbird is more consciously crafted. Scout learns as a result of acute observation and the events of the story, and we as readers grow in tandem with her.

The building of Scout’s conscience is where the two books come together. She, not Atticus, becomes the watchman, and she’s set on his conscience. As she herself claims, somehow she got raised right. Atticus may disappoint us in Watchman, but like other children who end up seeing more clearly than their parents, Jean Louise gives us hope. Watchman is a flawed book, especially in its ending that at times seems to undermine her stand against prejudice, and I think a younger Lee chose not to publish it on purpose. But the world we have is the world we have. My advice is to write your own story as well as you possibly can, to keep learning from others as well as from yourself, and not to give up on publishing, even as tough as it is. What if Harper Lee had given up, instead of trying harder with Mockingbird? We would all be less.



Movement with Meaning

Real people are never still. Gesture and movement are part of our language. They usually complement what’s being said, but they can also tell us things the speaker didn’t mean for us to know. Our experience of people guides our interpretation. Because readers come equipped to understand body language, writers can use it to show rather than tell. We don’t want to clutter the page with insignificant movements that readers will simply tune out (see Resisting Your Own Autosuggest), but well-chosen gestures and movements present opportunities for writers:

1. Enriching Character. Distinctive, authentic gestures convey personality. We recognize people by the way they do things. In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, when Boris pulls his chin back or pinches his nostrils shut, we feel that we know him. Only he would blow his nose sloppily, inspect the contents of the Kleenex and wince (p. 564). Body language can also open up depth, especially in characters reluctant to reveal themselves. When Boris leaves Theo behind in that scene – “his gait loosening and lightening as soon as he thought he was out of my view” (p. 565) – we immediately grasp that Boris has been hiding something from Theo and realize how tenuous their bond has become.

2. Invoking Sympathy. Small movements can be a subterranean way of engendering sympathy for characters who evoke a mixed response. An example here could be an embittered woman speaking hard truths to a child, but having that woman’s hands open for a moment, then close as if with regret. Imagined actions can be even more subtle – those considered and not taken – as contemplated within a close point of view. In Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (p. 180): “She would like to rest a hand on Marlene’s head, but this is not the kind of thing Olive is especially able to do. So she goes and stands near the chair Marlene sits on, gazing out that side window there, looking down at the shoreline….” Olive’s urge to touch Marlene makes her sympathetic, but her inability to do so is heartbreaking.

3. Creating Layers. Gestures and staging can contrast with narration and dialogue to set up an unreliable narrator, in books such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins. They act as our clues. Contrasts like these can also be mined for irony and humor or built up to increase the tension. Jennifer Egan does both in A Visit from the Goon Squad (pp. 180-183) when, in contrast to the typical back and forth of an entertainment interview, the reporter keeps taking little inappropriate actions such as staring at the movie star’s legs. Finally, he experiences an urge to push her back on the grass and then does, which launches a scene of full-blown action, while retaining the tone of dark absurdist comedy.

4. Marking Transitions. Movement can be of great practical use to a writer. For instance, small actions can be used in place of attributions like “said.” Movement draws the reader’s attention; we assume whoever moves is the one who speaks. Similarly, gestures can help us to transition between current time and memory or between dialogue and thought. Not only does movement draw the eye, a gesture can carry a sense of intimacy that invites us deeper. In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (p. 330), we move seamlessly from outside to inside the character of Jaslyn: “She rubs her hands together, nervously. Why, still, this small feeling of tightness at her core?”

5. Inspiring Discoveries. Gestures are easy for writers to improvise – to try on, if you will. They may open up paths we didn’t know we were on. They encourage us to surprise ourselves by making our scenes more real and vivid and may lead us to unexpected discoveries. All of us – writers as well as readers – interpret body language without consciously meaning to. Remember always to picture how your characters would move as they speak and listen and think, and you may find yourself learning something important and new about them.



Writing as a Full Body Experience

Photo courtesy of Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be
Photo courtesy of Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be

Writers have to learn to work on more than one level. At the same time we’re writing, we’re also reading – we’re both creating and reacting. While my mind keeps track of the story and the character’s progress through a scene, my heart is connected to her mood and my gut is registering tension. All my senses are alert to what her senses would be. (I could add that my hands are typing, but you get the idea.) If I have a character say something that doesn’t suit her state of mind, I get a sense of disconnection which tells me that I have to go back. If the tension flatlines, the first clue is that my stomach has unclenched. To some, this full body approach to writing comes naturally, but it can be an acquired skill. Often I go over a scene numerous times, focusing on three levels in particular.

First, the heart check: is the character carrying forward her emotional experience up to this point? If something angered her in the last chapter, that should still be throwing off some heat. If she’s anxious, that should color what she says. If the story is in first person or close third, then everything in the scene should be filtered through her state of mind, even the description of objects. The most effective and authentic way to accomplish this is to carry that state of mind inside yourself. This will allow you to go beyond the analytic (she should) and experience the filtering directly in an act of sympathetic imagination (she would). I assign this to my heart simply as a way of ordering the experience. What I’m talking about here is deep identification with our characters.

Next, the gut check: is there tension? Would a reader need to read on? Is there a mystery, a worry, an unfulfilled desire, a conflict, or even just a disquieting imbalance, something that a reader would want to see through? As writers, we must try to anticipate the sensation of reading our work as honestly as we can. To captivate others, we have to captivate ourselves. As you write, is your stomach so tense that the world outside falls away? Or do you find yourself starting to skim? The feedback of your body doesn’t lie. I assign this one to my gut, which is where I actually experience this kind of independent processing. What I’m talking about here, of course, is our identification with our readers.

Last, I return to the mind, which is also where I start. The mind has the biggest job. Character development, dialogue, plot, setting, language, metaphor, the list goes on and on…. Writing is submersive. You have to bring all your talents and faculties to bear. But that is how we can spend so many hours by ourselves at the computer, or with nothing but pen and paper. We carry inside us more than one experience, more than one person. We create a world outside ourselves by expanding the one inside.