Harper Lee (1926–2016) was the celebrated author of the award-winning classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Here are five wonderful quotes she shared with us about the writing life.
1. So many writers don’t like to write… I like to write, and sometimes I’m afraid I like it too much, because when I get into work, I don’t want to leave it. And as a result, I’ll go for days and days and days without leaving my house.
Let’s be real for a second: a lot of us love the idea of writing. We love to think about writing and talk to people about writing. We love to spend months and months thinking about that story or novel we can’t wait to eventually put on the blank page.
But the truth of the matter is that writing is really, really hard, so many of us steer clear of it as much as we can, and only when we can’t stand the procrastination anymore that we finally sit our ass in the chair and put some new words on the page.
Yes, writing is often hard, and yes, it can sometimes be a slog. But when the writing is good? When your imagination is fired up and you have a handle on your story and your characters? There’s no other bliss quite like the actual writing. You can escape your life and the world you live in for a few hours… or a few days if you want!
When you find yourself loving the process enough to not step away from the writing desk, that’s when you know you’re doing great work.
2. I’m a slow worker; I’m, I think, a steady worker.
One of the hardest things about being a writer in 2020 is having such easy access to social media to see how much faster it’s taking for other writers to find success. You’re slowly working away on a new manuscript, and boom, there are five more authors you follow on Twitter who just signed new big publishing deals or landed new literary agents.
It’s easy to see the success of others online and think you’re a failure. That you’re not good enough. That you’re not fast enough. You’re thirty, forty, fifty years old, still without a book deal, and you wonder if all your effort has been for nothing.
Take a breath. Calm down. Relax. It’s okay if you’re not a writing superstar by the time you hit thirty. I’ve written twenty novels in ten years, and now at the age of thirty-five, I still have no traditionally books in the world or much that I’ve written that truly qualifies as a success. And you know what? I’m okay with it. I’m slowly but surely working toward my dream because I know one day I’m going to make it. I don’t care if it takes another ten years and lots more manuscripts. I don’t care if I’m working a little bit slower than everybody else.
Don’t feel like you have to be a fast writer to be a success. As long as you put in a little bit of work every day and stay consistent, you’ll be well on your way to a completed manuscript and potential success in the near future.
3. Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.
If you take away no other pieces of advice from others, it should be these: stay consistent in your writing, like I just said, and finish every writing project you start.
Writing takes a lot of time and effort. Trust me, I know. And to this day I’ll be about halfway through a new novel manuscript and think it’s a mess and that it sucks and nobody’s going to read it and I’m a fraud and maybe I should just stop and start something else. I feel this all the time, and you’ll feel it, too.
Even scarier? That moment before you begin a new writing project, particularly a novel. You stare at that blank page knowing you have to fill up 200 of them, 300 of them, maybe more, and how in the world are you going to do it? It can be a terrifying prospect, even if you’ve written a novel before. And it’s made even worse if that first day you don’t get very many words down.
But do it anyway. Be courageous. If there’s a project you believe in, don’t put it off another month or another year. Find a window of time and just get started, even if that means a couple hundred words a day. Begin that project you believe in and see it through no matter what!
4. It was something I never expected to — I never expected the book would sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers.
What never fails me to fascinate me about Harper Lee is how brilliant and beautiful To Kill a Mockingbird is and yet she never went on to publish another book (yes, Go Set a Watchman, I know, but that doesn’t really count). She didn’t expect To Kill a Mockingbird to sell. She didn’t expect it to be so universally acclaimed and win the Pulitzer Prize. She didn’t expect it to be a bestseller and be made into an Oscar-winning movie.
It was all clearly so overwhelming to Lee that within a few years after her book’s publication she pulled away from public life and, while she may have written more material in the decades to come, she never opted to have any of it published. And I always tend to wonder if To Kill a Mockingbird hadn’t been such an instant smash if she’d maybe had a few more quality books in her.
I don’t know about you but I would be sort of terrified to have my very first published novel be received on the level of To Kill a Mockingbird. It would be so surprising and thrilling and chaotic I’m not sure I would have the ability to write and publish another book for a long, long time. Look at John Green, who was a prolific author of young adult novels before The Fault in Our Stars was released, and he’s only managed one more novel in the past eight years. Look at Gillian Flynn, who still hasn’t published any novels in the eight years since the release of Gone Girl.
There’s good and there’s bad to having a runaway bestseller. The truth is you can’t really think about the potential success while you’re working on a project. You have to just write the story you’re passionate about and go from there. Whatever happens after that? It’s sort of out of your hands.
5. Many receive advice, only the wise profit from it.
When it comes to the writing life, especially if you’re at the start of it, you’re going to get advice every which way you turn. Friends and family will tell you things. Other writers will give you advice about how to write a novel and how to get your work published and so forth. You’ll go online and read mountains of advice there, too.
I think it’s important as a writer to see what’s worked for other writers before you and get a sense as to how you can do your finest work. You can’t always write in a bubble, after all. The first draft is all you, but when you get into revisions and the eventual publishing sides of things, you’re going to want to take advice from others and get lots of help wherever possible.
Harper Lee is right in that everyone can easily receive advice but it’s only the wise that actually profit from it. It’s not enough to just read tons of advice and then see what you remember or don’t remember. You have to implement the best pieces of advice you see or hear and find sooner than later what works well for you.
Writing is a difficult and lonely life, but there’s also a tremendous community for you out there, both in person and online, where you can learn more about the craft and be inspired and find ways to improve your skills each and every day.
Take in as much advice as you can… and then use it! If you’re smart about the way you take advice from others, there’s no telling how great your writing can be in the months and years to come.
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