Sunday, November 1, 2009

Lessons Learned: To Kill a Mockingbird

Written by Harper Lee; 1960; approximately 281 pages.

For days I've been spluttering trying to figure out what to say about To Kill a Mockingbird. When I made up a list of titles to do for this series, I left it for last out of some vague notion that it would simply be an appropriate conclusion. It's just that I'm having trouble figuring out why. There’s the purely technical stuff, of course: for example, the narrator’s complex, mature voice in contrast with the behavior and thought process of her six-year-old self. Instead of being an inappropriate juxtaposition, Lee manages to combine the omniscience of a third-person narrator with the highly personal subjectivity of a first-person narrator. Capturing the unique “local flavor”; tackling difficult, controversial subjects relating to racial interaction. And I could go on, but let’s leave the purely technical aside for a change.

What I’ve tried to avoid throughout this series is getting into inspirational-speak mode. Even when you do say something useful, more often than not you sound like Yoda, “A Jedi writer can feel the force flowing through him.” Patient you must be. Disciplined. Yes.

Something like that anyway.

At its best, writing is an exhilarating experience. At its worst – insert your preferred metaphor for frustration and disappointment here. I can talk (type) until tomorrow about planning and structure and character arcs and subtext and motifs and what-have-you. Somewhere, at some point, there’s something that you can’t boil down to a technical/artistic principle. Call it the spirit of the book. Call it the intangibility of Art. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you call it, it’s that indefinable something which pushes a button inside you and says, “Yes, this is it. This is what I’ve been looking for.” Which is what brings me to write about To Kill a Mockingbird.

Usually you're supposed to read Mockingbird in school at around the age of fourteen as though it's some sort of fitting educational milestone for that period. "Ahh, so you're getting to be an adult, eh? Well this is just the book for you. Full of good and wholesome values to influence your outlook on life so you become a productive adult in our flawed-but-functioning society." That is, right before they teach you the “real” grown-up stuff like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. "Yeah, so we might not have mentioned it before but life is all about suffering. Oh, and society is lousy and irrational." Not that Fitzgerald and Hemingway are necessarily wrong (it depends on your point of view), but I can't shake the feeling that Mockingbird's classification as young adult fiction is bizarre.

A black man is convicted of raping a white woman simply because he's black. Even though the jury and every other person in town know the woman and her father are lying. Even though his defense attorney is the most honorable, right-thinking man in town. That man is shot trying to escape from prison. The children of the defense attorney are nearly murdered by the "rape victim's" father in retaliation. That doesn't sound not-quite-grown-up to me. Maybe that’s because Mockingbird pushes my “It” button. I’m not a southerner and I didn’t grow up during the Great Depression, and with the exception of once having been a na├»ve six-year-old girl, I am nothing like Scout Finch. Nevertheless, whenever I read Mockingbird, I feel as though I’ve found something I didn’t realize I was missing.

And that’s what I want to do as a writer – I want to entertain and to make people think, but I also want to give them something they’ve been missing. It’s not closure or catharsis I’m talking about – those are technical elements which aren't necessarily called for. I can't find a specific word or an expression for what I'm talking about, but I think I've made the point.

Next week… a summary post.

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