On being Southern

Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

The Northern Mockingbird

Last night, I finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and it was the first novel that I have read so far in this project that has felt like a contemporary popular novel:  natural feeling dialogue, dynamic characters and situations, descriptive though not overly so, a captivating plot.  I can see why the freshman novel immediately became a bestseller when it was published in 1960.  I will also be watching the movie version of the Pulitzer Prize winning book starring Gregory Peck, since it’s waiting for me on my DVR.

I must admit that I am strangely drawn to the Southerness of certain novels, since it reflects a particular culture with which I am familiar.  Seeing colloquialisms and superstitions in print is a fascinating lesson in observation.  These are things I know, but do not notice, and therefore see no need to mention them in writing because of their very prevalent nature.  But putting burlap sacks and towels over your azaleas when a frost is coming doesn’t happen everywhere, and mentioning details like that points out to me the value of the unique Southern traditions I take for granted.  It makes me oddly proud of where I come from, warts and all.  My brother has an amazing retention and recall of movie lines and can mimic other people’s personal catch phrases and personality ticks with skill.  His powers of observation are like that of a really good author, and I realize that I need to try to learn a little more of that skill from him. 

It is fascinating to me that To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s only novel.  It took her two and a half years to write and she once threw it out the window into the snow she was so frustrated with her progress.  Her publisher made her retrieve it, but tried to set her expectations low about how few people would probably read it.  Lee had sufficiently low expectations, but they were both wrong.  She has refused interviews about the book since 1964 saying that its unexpected popularity was almost worse than the quick and painless death she thought the story would die when it was originally published.  Her actual response to interview requests, apparently, is “Hell no!” 

As of yet, she has not written a follow-up novel.  It makes me wonder why.  Was it the only novel she had in her?  Did fame and acceptance jade her about the possibility of another success?  Was she afraid to try again and possibly not do as well as the first time?  Was the creation process just too difficult?  I could see any of those explanations being likely.  The title is an analogy.  When you say something is like killing a mockingbird, a bird that is not a pest and does nothing but provide beautiful song, it means that you are destroying something beautiful that does nothing but provide joy.  Predominant themes in the book are rape, racial disparity and loss of innocence, so the title obviously reflects those losses as well as an important event at the end which I will not divulge for a change.  Perhaps for Harper Lee, the fame the book achieved killed the original passion she had for writing and she accidentally killed her own mockingbird.  

This is the kind of novel I aspire to write, and being in the throes of that attempt has made the reading of this book even more interesting to me.  I found that despite my best efforts to read critically and parse the techniques used to move the plot or describe the characters, I was continually swept up in the story and forgot to analyze it.  Maybe I’m just not good at that sort of analysis.  Maybe I just pick up the few things I’ve learned about writing by osmosis.  But maybe this novel is just that good.

My next step . . .

I have been a good productive girl this week and gotten a number of household projects under my belt.  As a reward, I let myself go to Barnes and Noble to browse the stacks to choose my next victim, er, novel.  Sorry.  Still have Dracula on the brain what with Halloween next weekend and all.  I wanted to move into a more contemporary novel since my first three books were written in the 1800’s and I also wanted to take advantage of some of the Turner Classic Movies that I have sitting on my DVR by reading a book and then watching the movie.  I think I’ve decided upon Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms, although To Kill a Mockingbird is still in the running since I purchased both.

I have also been given an interesting proposition that I am seriously considering.  There is a contest called National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short.  Apparently, all you have to do to “win” this contest is write a 50,000 word novel during the 30 days of November . . . and I say “all” as though that were not much of a task.  The point of the contest is pure productivity.  No editing or polishing or agonizing over the right words.  Just sit down and let the words pour forth.  I must say that there is a certain appeal to this since I tend to be nearly paralyzed by self-criticism when I seriously try to write (obviously, not in this blog, though.)  And the deadline aspect is a powerful motivator in every aspect of my life.  50,000 words translates to about 178 pages, or so their web site says.  Not sure what kind of pages they mean, but it gives a little perspective.  And just in case any of you reading wonder if there is anything other than a bunch of crap being cranked out of this contest, the 2007 best seller Water For Elephants written by Sara Gruen and published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill was a product of NaNoWriMo . . . a book I read and truly enjoyed.  I’m going to talk to my potential writing partner about it later today.  If I decide to do it, my November blog posts may be short and sweet, but I’ll keep you posted (pun intended.)

And now for some personal musing (as though that’s not entirely what a blog is in the first place) . . . I had a job interview yesterday upon which I had pinned a lot of my hopes.  Suffice it to say that although it went extremely well, the outcome was not exactly what I desired:  no position available until next March at the earliest.  Now that I’ve been searching for a job for almost 8 months (and I realize that I am not alone in this) I have some heavy decision-making to do about how and where to continue my job hunt.  I’ve decided to give myself the weekend, if not the rest of the week, to ponder it before embarking on my chosen course.  In the meantime, I’m going to a 3-year-old’s birthday party with a bouncy house, watching a couple of versions of the Dracula movie, having multiple adult beverages with good friends, dressing up for Halloween (twice), and in general, trying to enjoy my life as it is.  It’s a challenge to stay in the moment when you are a control freak like me and can see the end of the money coming, but whether I sit here at the computer enjoying a little writing time or lay in my bed crying over my potential poverty has no effect on my eminent financial crisis.  It only has an effect on my current frame of mind, and more and more often in my life, I choose to try to be happy.  It’s amazing to realize how much of a personal choice it really is, and I challenge myself, as well as my myriad readers 😉 , to try to make that choice every day.