When I first heard the news that a second Harper Lee novel was going to be released, I did an actual jig. Even though I am not much of a jig-dancer, I did. (I created my own jig, which probably would have made the Riverdance professionals hang their heads low in embarrassment on my behalf.) Yet, as journalistic reports and media coverage of Lee’s hotly-anticipated second novel, Go Set a Watchman, came out, I began to view the release with a certain sense of ethical dread.
Was this what Ms. Lee wanted?
Was it about money for those involved on her behalf?
Why was the novel only being released after the death of Lee’s close confidant and handler in all legal issues, her sister Alice Lee?
But as the release approached, I knew that I would have to read the book. My first thought: I’ll put my name on the library waiting list so I don’t have to necessarily support the whole money-possibility-scheme, etc…
So I put my name on the list, and BAM! There I was: 298th in line for our town of Acton, Massachusetts.
But I was resolved to wait it out.
Until I wasn’t. I was on my way home from the library one day and my car kind of drove itself to our local indie store, Willow Books. There, I purchased a copy of Go Set a Watchman, went home, and promptly read the thing as fast as possible.
Like many readers who once idolized the heroic and calmly brave Atticus Finch, I cringed as I read about him in this semi-sequel. I finished the book, and I almost as though it was my own father who had been pretending–and many years later I had found out who he really was, what he really believed.
And I mourned–for a little while–the fact that I had even named my own character in The Looney Experiment after him: Atticus Hobart! An eighth-grader who learns what real courage is all about. I saw the “new” Atticus through the eyes of my own Atticus, and I could hear my character asking, WHAT DOES THIS SAY ABOUT ME!!??
I tried to calm him down, let him know that everything was going to be okay. That his courage is still courage. But when I read an article about an actual couple changing the name of their seven month old baby after Watchman was realeased because they no longer wanted him to be named Atticus, I admit I lost some sleep.
After all: I couldn’t change the name of my eighth-grader! And he certainly felt like a real son to me.
And then I proceeded to devour every news story released about the saga. And my heart kind of flooded over with a certain gratitude when I read about Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor for To Kill a Mockingbird. From all evidence gathered, The New York Times did an incredible job of painting the scene: Mockingbird had been the EVENTUAL draft–the final draft–of Lee’s masterpiece. But Watchman had been the first foray. It was only through Hohoff’s extensive revision requests and effusive encouragement that Lee was able to get to many drafts later and the masterpiece we have come to know.
In essence: First-draft Atticus Finch was not the man that later-draft Atticus became. And it was only through the insight, counsel, and support of an astute editor that we came to meet the real Atticus Finch.
I began to think about this in terms of my own character, Atticus Hobart. And I realized that, at the start of The Looney Experiment, he is definitely his first-draft self. He is terrified of life: of speaking up in class, of talking to AUDREY HIGGINS, or being real with his Dad, of using his voice in any way to speak his truth.
But Atticus Hobart doesn’t stay there. His first-draft self is not his real self.
And then I began to think about myself, too. And about the people I love. And I realized that we all long to grow from our first-draft selves. We try things, we get it wrong. We try again, we get it wrong again. We make mistakes, mess up, miss opportunities, remain silent when we should speak, speak when we should remain silent, attack when we should repent, repent when we should attack–and so on.
We all mess up, and were life a courtroom drama, I suspect we’d all be found guilty of a jury for all of the above. For our missed moments and our unkind actions. But the thing is, life is more a novel than a courtroom drama. We get to see our first-draft selves and then we’re not stuck with them. We get new chapters, new revisions, new drafts–and we get the chance to create second-draft, third-draft, fourth-draft…tenth-draft selves.
And the truth is, this process of getting to out next draft-selves is a lot easier if we’ve got someone supporting us. We can’t do it alone. Just as Lee had her editor, Hohoff, to help Atticus Finch become his best-draft self, we too need others to love us, challenge us, hold us, push us, see us, and–especially–see what we can yet become.
Sometimes, I remind my character, Atticus Hobart, of this fact. Atticus, you don’t have to be like anyone but yourself. You are free to become the best-draft of yourself that you can be.
And I sometimes remind myself of this, too.
We are all masterpieces–classics of a sort–waiting to become a new draft that is just a little bit stronger, a little bit bolder, a little bit braver. And we all need someone to help us along that road.
In this way, I see Atticus Finch in a new way. No longer do I view him as a perfect model of sensitive strength. Instead, I view him as a draft–because now I know where he began in Watchman, and how far he came along to get to Mockingbird.
I too have a long way to go and a long way to grow. Atticus Hobart does. We all do. And the good news is, that’s a journey worth taking. That’s a journey worth talking about, writing about, and believing in–no matter how long it takes.