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Thinking About Harper Lee – Processing what’s Under Your Writer’s Bed

Well, there’s Harper Lee and Atticus and just somebody tell me what does it all mean? I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.

I guess I can’t help myself because I’m a writer and a southerner and I always liked saying Harper Lee only had the one book and it gave me relief. Like I didn’t have to accomplish much more. Except now I have to figure something out to leave under my bed, damn it.

I’m also thinking how she was really young when she wrote this new, old book that’s turned up. I can conjure up how it makes so much sense that she was going home from life in New York to life in Alabama and what on earth that must have been like to try to process. Here’s your swanky new life up north with people who talk good and act big and you go home to an old daddy who’s probably embarrassing with his corny jokes and prayer before meals. Which also makes him the Daddy you love. Which means you have to overlook his issues. Like drinking. Or gambling. Or women. Or bigotry. Or just being lazy. You can be a town hero and feel sorry for Boo and stand up for Tom, and still do all that other stuff at home and ya’ll know it. I mean, I get it. She wasn’t much more than a kid when she wrote that stuff she hid under her bed, when she was trying to love imperfect people in an imperfect world and learning that it’s hard to have it both ways. I don’t know if she found the answer.

I haven’t even read the book, only a chapter. I say this goes to show the power of story and a fictional character, that we’re all so worked up about it. It’s just that everybody keeps turning up a disappointment and I’m kind of sick of that. I want the old Atticus like I want Santa Claus. I want somebody to just be good in all the mess. I want a good husband. I want a good Daddy. I want a good president. I want to trust the whole wide world and sing on top of a hill with Don Draper, who regrets how bad he’s been to women, and share a Coca-Cola with a bunch of happy, hippie teenagers. I want Boo Radley to come out! (Even if I know it’s only Robert Duvall behind the door, made up real sweet.)

I am so distracted by this. But I’m also thinking about things like Bill Cosby. (He put his hand on my belly when I was pregnant with my daughter. I am sad. I am horrified. I am angry.) And I’m dreaming about all the little white boys with mental problems, the ones I used to teach, hopped up on meds, maybe going in places any day now and shooting people they’ve never even laid eyes on. And flags. And cops. And riots. And war in places that have been warring since the dawn of man. And also, vaccines. And all the pharmaceutical commercials that promise me a better quality of life, if I don’t die from side effects. (Which, let’s face it, really wouldn’t be a side effect.)

And that makes me think how, in general, my whole thought process is made up of side effects. All the stuff that’s filtering through my head every day – and night, if we’re honest – can be summed up as side effects. I am worried about Harper, I really am. And Malala, too. Did you ever think what it’s like to be her? And I’m worried that my Keurig coffee maker might be silently poisoning me since I seriously can’t ever empty all the water out of that reservoir. What is in there, lurking? You know it’s not clean. But I just pushed the button, anyway. It doesn’t TASTE like cancer.

Cancer is another thing. Did you ever hear of so much cancer as you hear about today? Is it because I’m getting older? I keep telling people that it’s because I’m getting older, it’s just a different stage of life. This is the stage where there is cancer eating everybody up. When I was twelve, I didn’t hear about cancer because cancer wasn’t eating up enough kids, only the ones on the TV commercials. Now I’m old enough for cancer to be a daily conversation. And divorce. And parents dying. Or pets dying. It’s all very traumatic. I am not being facetious. I mean this. I am sad a lot more than ever before. Because of all of the losing stuff and people. There is a lot of losing going on.

On the other hand, there’s a lot going on in general that is piling Life up around me. So it’s not just the losing. It’s the gaining. Sometimes it’s more like hoarding. My schedules look like those houses of hoarders on cable. Kids going places, growing up and teeth coming out or growing crooked or being allergic to everything because, apparently, I’m feeding them chicken and milk hopped up on God knows what. And banquets. I’m hanging awards on their walls and probably they’re collecting anecdotes for future therapy sessions. It seems like they ought to paint my name in a space at the pediatrician’s parking lot. That’s the award I want. A shorter walk. But they’re all busy and I’m busy with them. And I am just so proud. And grateful. And distracted.

Because I’m also busy without them. I’m busy with the big people, too. The people who need things from me and fill me up when my tank is low. The daily exchange of encouragement, support, wisdom, humor or just a good shoulder rub. Meet me for coffee. Sweet Communion. And Brainpickers, Lord. Heartbreakers, too. The ones having breakdowns or dealing with addictions or climbing ladders or moving out or moving on or needing me to show my face in support of one thing or another. Funerals or celebrations. And I love every one of them so I’m there and I’m participating and I’m just trying to process it all. Maybe I’ll put that in the book under my bed. Maybe one day they’ll say I was just senile when I agreed to let it be published because, obviously. Sheesh.

Did I mention I’m writing a book? Yeah. And there’s room in my head for it, just like there’s room in my life for the writing of it. But I go to the beach with all of this other stuff going on in my head, Harper and all. And I wonder how on earth I’m ever going to focus on a bunch of made-up people, dealing with whatever? How will I ever get the formula right so the characters are compelling? So they’re sympathetic, but not cliché? So the story is identifiable? So there are great odds and every page is infused with relationships and conflict to the gills? How do I come up with material that takes readers on a journey, where they come out of it alive or dead, but hand in hand and forever changed? And the thing is, don’t you just know when it’s done, some editor is going to say I ought to consider writing the whole thing from a child’s perspective and clean everything up a little bit, so black is black and white is white and it’s easy to tell the good from the bad? I bet Harper can tell me how easy that is.

I don’t know. Inside, I guess I’m still little Scout, trying to see what the hell’s going on through the too-small eyeholes of my ham suit. I’m told what I’m really doing as a writer, is processing all of this stuff. Sitting here at my desk waiting for something to strike me, I wonder if my trouble most days, was Harper’s trouble, too. You can’t just let Boo out and forget the rest. Maybe it should seem obvious to me that in order to get to the source of my truest, most transparent work, I’m going to have to work up the courage to look under my Writer’s Bed at the mean old Atticus I’ve stuffed back in there. Maybe the only way to make sense of who we are, what we love, what we fear, what we dream and what we dare, is to pull the terrible out with the tender. To be true so we can be transformed. Is that what we’re all really trying to do with this writing business?

Like I said, I’ll have to think about it.