Nelle Harper Lee died last month at 89.
Among the countless obituaries printed for her in the last few days is a tweet by Congressman John Lewis:
One of the greatest writers of all time, Harper Lee laid bare the soul of America and her work will continue to educate for generations.
She has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Millions of people would have read one of her books by the time they were 16.
Clearly, she was a talented writer.
What does that mean?
It doesn’t mean that everything comes easily—but we do like to tell ourselves that it does.
I hear lots of people say they wish they could write/draw/sing/play the piano but aren’t talented enough—so they’ve stopped trying.
I hear lots of people say—when they learn someone is famous or prolific—that the person ‘must be talented’.
If you look up the dictionary, ‘talent’ is defined as having ‘natural skill and aptitude’. But what kind of natural skill and aptitude? What does that give you?
There’s the ‘good at writing’ part. But that is a lot of hard work too…
Scout, Jem and Atticus didn’t spring fully-formed into To Kill a Mockingbird. The protagonists in the original manuscript were the same people in the same town—but they were adults. It sounds like she got pretty far in before she changed her mind—the manuscript was finally released last year as her second novel, Go Set a Watchman.
Who knows why she decided to start again, with her characters as children?
And then, after Mockingbird, she started—but never finished—two other books.
When asked why, she said she that she had nothing more to say.
What did she do in the meantime?
Helped to create the ‘true crime’ genre, for a start.
Although we hardly know anything about her, we do know is that she was instrumental in researching Truman Capote’s incredible book: In Cold Blood. In Cold Blood documents the random—and brutal—murder of a small-town family in their home, and what made the killers tick.
Reportedly, without Harper’s easygoing manner—her ability to connect with the people she was interviewing—In Cold Blood wouldn’t have the depth and humanity that makes it the iconic book that it is.
So, although she obviously could construct a sentence better than many, much of her natural skill and aptitude was in reading. Reading human behaviour. Drawing out the core of a person—or a town. Or a society. Then putting it somewhere for everyone to find.
Good night, Harper. Thank you.