Remember when you had homework? I do. I brought home a pile of books: my intentions were so lofty. In those days before backpacks, I bundled them in my arms. The books often slid out of my grip. It was annoying.
Come Friday night, I wanted to relax. On Saturday, pangs of guilt nibbled at me. I should start on the English paper, the geometry problems and that history chapter. Despite my growing unease, I watched TV, read novels, chatted on the phone. I didn’t crack a book. Finally, late Sunday night, when all that was left on TV were televangelists, I’d start my homework.
Turns out that having this blog feels sort of like that. I feel the time pressure but often don’t get around to writing.
Don’t get me wrong. I love writing about books and my relationship to them. I love hearing from other readers how they feel. But there are all sorts of reasons not to write: a friend’s visit, a walk, a TV show. And the more mundane obstacles: paying bills, washing clothes, buying groceries, cooking, visiting the doctor, even the occasional cuddle with husband Bill.
You may well wonder, what would be the downside of not writing a blogpost? I wonder myself. I fear my small but discriminating readership will lose interest. Also, my website on WordPress keeps track of how many “views,” “visitors” and “likes” I get every day, week, month and year. I have to keep my stats up.
I console myself with the thought that quality trumps quantity. Look at Harper Lee. She is not just remembered but beloved. To Kill a Mockingbird has sold over 40 million copies since it came out in 1960. Lee didn’t publish another book until Go Set a Watchman, a first draft of Mockingbird, shortly before her death 55 years later. And her life was just fine.
Well, not so fast. In Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, Casey Cep writes about Harper Lee’s losing struggle to produce a book after the stunning success of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee decided to write about a sensational murder in 1977 Alabama. The victim and the murderer were both black men. The lawyer for the defense was a white man, a liberal in the Deep South.
Lee was committed to writing this true crime story. She attended the trial. She paid for a typed transcript of the trial. She interviewed relatives, neighbors, officials. She actually lived in the town where the murder happened to gather materials. She became friends with Tom Radney, the defense lawyer, who gave her his legal notes. (The briefcase with the notes were found among Lee’s estate and returned to Radney’s family in 2017.)
Lee’s new work would be about a black man on trial and a sympathetic white man defending him. Sound familiar? As a non-fiction book, Lee faced challenges that Mockingbird did not have. The victim was not blameless, as Tom Robinson was. The Reverend Willie Maxwell was notorious for the suspicious deaths of family members and for collecting insurance on them. And in the late 1970s, the idea of a white lawyer “saving” a black man was not as politically palatable as in the 1930s, the setting of Mockingbird.
True crime writing had also changed, in large part due to Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote. Prior to Capote’s In Cold Blood, crime writing had been considered journalistic or tabloid. Capote called his book a “non-fiction novel,” shaping the narrative arc in novelistic fashion.
That these two giants of twentieth-century American literature were friends and neighbors is stranger than fiction, even though Lee based the character Dill on Capote. Cep notes in her book that Lee accompanied Capote to Kansas to help him gather information for In Cold Blood. The farm folks of western Kansas were put off by Capote’s lisp and odd clothing, They found Harper Lee “warm and empathetic.”
At the time, To Kill a Mockingbird had the much bigger impact on me. I felt like a part of the Finch family. I wanted a dad who was as brave, wise and loving as Atticus. I wanted a brother who would look out for me like Jem. I wanted someone to feed me and dress me like Calpurnia.
In Cold Blood made me fear for my family’s life. I was almost sorry I read it. Capote’s approach to non-fiction, however, stuck with me. It inspired my own writing. His insertion of himself into the narrative and his subjective observations of the story’s action can only be called GONZO. I describe my blog as gonzo book reviews.
Lee disapproved of many of the liberties Capote took in his book. He changed the timeline, inserted scenes and described the killers’ state of mind. Lee wanted to hew to the facts. But, I suspect, that she found it difficult to create narrative drive and sympathetic characters like she could in Mockingbird. Or, like me, she had chores to get out of the way. In the end, it took Cep to tell this story.
Lee became reclusive in reaction to To Kill a Mockingbird’s overwhelming popularity. She felt the weight of readers’ expectations. Everyone wanted a piece of her. Some folks wanted her to write their stories. Some people wanted to be paid to answer her questions about the murder in her new book when they found out who she was. Still others just wanted to touch her hem. On the upside, Harper Lee never had to worry about making a living.
Cep weaves a tale of real people in complicated situations – historically, socially, legally, racially. She hewed close to the facts, as Harper Lee would have approved. She made me realize that actual people with problems and hang-ups can write transcendent books. Still, it’s sad to think that Harper Lee buckled under the weight of the expectations of her fans and, mostly, her expectations for herself.
Which brings me back to my expectations for my blog. I remind myself that guilt and anxiety do not increase productivity. And they certainly decrease life satisfaction. And if I am late in posting on my self-imposed schedule, I and my discerning followers will survive the crushing disappointment.
Tell me: Do your expectations for yourself help you or hurt you?