It seems that the best thing that ever happened to Harper Lee as a writer was also the worst thing that ever happened to Harper Lee as a writer.
In 1956, Lee received a gift of a year’s wages from friends who told her to “write whatever you please.” Let’s take a moment now for intense jealousy. All done? OK, let’s see what happened next.
“Whatever Harper Lee pleased” turned out to be her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960. It was a bestseller right out of the gate. Critics loved it. Readers loved it. It won a freaking Pulitzer Prize. To say that the book did well would be an ugly and thoughtless understatement.
Writers who would like to take the moral “Write whatever you please” from this story are welcome to take their things and go now. We’ll wait while you get up. However, you may wish to consider the many, many people who write whatever they please and fail to become bestselling Pulitzer Prize winners. I’m just sayin’.
On to the actual point of today’s column: Harper Lee’s greatest triumph seems to have absolutely crushed her spirit. Here’s what she said about the experience:
“I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I expected.”
My guess is that it was more frightening. I’ve talked on my psychology of motivation blog, The Willpower Engine, about Impostor Syndrome, which is the experience of feeling as though you are getting rewards or recognition you don’t deserve, through some kind of fluke or fakery. One of the people I coach, for instance, is about to start her first year at Harvard after a fairly terrific high school academic career. Her grades were no accident, yet it’s hard for her to believe that people aren’t overestimating her. So it is, I suspect, with Harper Lee.
Because Harper Lee hasn’t offered any fiction for publication since To Kill a Mockingbird was published. She worked on a second novel, but wasn’t satisfied with what she was coming up with and, tragically and tellingly, burned it. While I don’t know Ms. Lee and could potentially be making unwarranted inferences, it appears that she suffers from a crippling fear of sucking.
After all, how would it feel if you wrote a novel that was praised to the South Pole and back, then wrote a second novel that was universally recognized as unreadable hackwork? In reality, I suspect a bad second novel would be quickly forgotten after the initial disappointment. It would have to be far, far worse than the usual offering to lastingly tarnish her reputation. And yet the fear of sucking seems to have deprived us of any and all other Harper Lee novels that might ever have been.
And unfortunately, fear of sucking is not restricted to Pulitzer Prize winners. Whether we have great successes in our past or no track record at all, it’s all too easy to look at something we’re writing and let the fear that it isn’t good enough crush us. We might stop writing, or fail to send it out, or fail to send it out a second time, or fail to send it out a fifteenth time. (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by the way, took 13 tries. Rowling then went on to write six more books in the series, several of which are arguably better than that first, wildly successful volume, making J.K. Rowling in a way the anti-Harper Lee–as long as she doesn’t consider the whole Harry Potter series her To Kill a Mockingbird.)
I should be clear here: courage or no courage, our writing may at any given time suck. As good as practice can make us over time, there is never any absolute guarantee that our latest piece is any good, and there’s virtually no way any one person can judge the true value of a piece of writing, especially not the writer.
Yet there’s also good reason to believe that the latest thing you’ve been working on may well be the best thing you’ve ever written. Or if it isn’t, that finishing it and sending it out may grant you a precious insight that will take you to a whole new level of writing awesomeness. Courage can’t prevent us from sucking, but fear of sucking can prevent us from ever realizing our dreams.
A note: The discussion of Harper Lee in this piece is an extension of the big old section on overcoming writer’s block in my free eBook The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation. [Freaky man-in-a-hole image by TimOve]
Luc Reid is a Writers of the Future winner whose fiction and nonfiction have also appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Abyss & Apex, and other venues. He’s the founder of the Codex online neo-pro writers’ group; author of Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures (Writers Digest Books, 2006); a founding member of flash fiction group The Daily Cabal, on which site well over a hundred of his stories have appeared; and a former radio commentator for Jacksonville, Florida NPR affiliate WJCT. He blogs sporadically about writing at http://reidwrite.livejournal.com and posts five articles a week on tactics and insights for self-motivation at http://www.willpowerengine.com . His eBook The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation, is available for PDF download on his site (free) as well as for Kindle.
6 thoughts on “The Courage to Suck”
I suspect that something similar explains the oft-noted downward spiral in the movies of M. Night Shyamalan. Being heralded as “The New Hitchcock” is a lot of performance pressure for a fresh new director.
I suspect that something similar explains the oft-noted downward spiral in the movies of M. Night Shyamalan. Being heralded as “The New Hitchcock” is a lot of performance pressure for a fresh new director; I sometimes think he was deliberately sabotaging his later films to take some of the pressure off.
Thank you for this illuminating essay. That said, please make sure that all your future essays are every bit as good as this one, else I will be quite disappointed in you. Heh. 🙂
I know there are probably a lot of other examples, but Joseph Heller comes to mind. Catch-22, his first novel, has been the subject of almost-universal praise for half a century now. He continued publishing right up until his death, and while subsequent novels weren’t terrible, they weren’t the tour-de-force works of genius that Catch-22 was. Of course, this hasn’t harmed Catch-22’s reputation—it’s still read in a lot of high school English classes.
Read his _Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man_ for a semi-autobiographical take on this.
“…and there’s virtually no way any one person can judge the true value of a piece of writing, especially not the writer.” What nonsense. What is the evidence for this alleged truism?
People know about the quality of writing like they know anything else. Some have developed better critical judgement than others. Some are more intellectually honest than others. Some writers can self-edit better than others, which would not be the case if the writer had no means of judging the value of his work. So forth.
Thanks for the interesting comments and examples posted so far! I thought I’d respond to an issue David brought up:
>> … and there’s virtually no way any one person can judge the
>> true value of a piece of writing, especially not the writer.
> What is the evidence for this alleged truism?
Well, here’s where I’m coming from: the value of a piece of writing has to do with its impact on everyone who is involved with it, mainly the writer and readers. For each reader, the work will have a somewhat different impact because we each have unique brain structure based on both inherited characteristics and the almost inconceivable number of neural connections we make, break, and/or strengthen during the course of our lives.
So each reader approaches the work somewhat differently, and it’s literally impossible to tell in advance how a piece of writing will affect each of those readers, because any model of those systems would have to be as complex as the systems themselves. In other words, the simplest possible way to tell how a group of readers will receive a work is for them to read and react to it.
The reason the writer is especially ill-equipped to judge how well the work will impact those readers is that he or she will have expectations and intentions for the piece that prevent normal readerly reactions. For instance, if there’s a very meaningful and revealing bit of dialog in a story, the writer already knows what it’s supposed to mean and has a built-in hope and expectation that it will mean that to readers, and therefore is not in a good position to say objectively as a reader whether or not it works.
For all that, of course there are a lot of commonalities to us all as humans, and further we have the commonalities of our shared culture and language, so an experienced writer who has seem readers’ reactions to a lot of writing can make an educated guess as to how well a new piece will work–but only an educated guess. Even excellent writers come out with less-successful works sometimes, and even the most experienced editors and publishers sometimes pass over works that will be extremely successful when they reach the world.
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