The Making of a Masterpiece. Part One. Familiarity.

Sep 7, 2006Write!

I’m reading an altogether fascinating book right now entitled Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields. It’s a book about the life of novelist Harper Lee. Though, granted, it’s frustrating that Shields has no first-hand interaction with his subject, I am learning a lot about what went on behind the scenes of my favorite novel.

Here’s what surprised me. Nelle Harper Lee wrote a novel based very closely on her life growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. I knew, of course, that Dill was Truman Capote, that Atticus was a prototype of her father, A. C. Lee. But so many other details correspond to the story as well: A character that looked and acted like Nelle’s distant, most-likely manic-depressive mother. A poor recluse boy-turned-to-man who was essentially held hostage by his obsessive father (Boo, anyone?). A trial about two negroes accused of murder. The similarities are staggering.

And all these years, I felt it wrong to base things so closely to a novelist’s life. I don’t know why I’ve thought that. Perhaps I’ve felt that to truly create a fictional world, one must completely make one up. I suppose that’s why it makes sense to me why I am in awe of sci-fi or fantasy writers. They completely make worlds up! Tolkein created his own languages! Now, that’s creativity.

All my life I’ve had this deep longing to create things that no one else had created. I couldn’t bear writing a story someone else had written. I’ve been suspicious of all the Joseph Campbell mythic structures. I wanted to do something new. Something never done before. I know now that there is nothing new under the sun. But I also know that what a novelist does is bring herself/himself into the story in a vulnerable, naked way.

It all makes sense now, thanks to Nelle Harper Lee. When Building the Christian Family You Never Had (a non-fiction book released in January) came out, I felt naked. Frightened a bit. In that book, I shared the story of my upbringing. Oddly, though, two months later Watching the Tree Limbs came out, and I felt more naked. More exposed. More afraid. Although I had exposed myself through the words of the pioneer parenting book, I felt my soul and heart lived on the pages of my novel.

I used to feel a little annoyed when folks would ask me if I’m Maranatha. I’d say no, of course. Because I want to create something utterly new. But the truth is, Maranatha is a part of me, as I am a part of her. And it comforts me that Miss Lee spilled herself onto the pages of her book; that in a very real sense, she was Scout, telling the story of mockingbirds in the South. Maranatha is my mockingbird. I’ve made her breathe and sing and dance. My soul has enlivened hers.

What a deep encouragement it is to me that Harper Lee wrote was familiar to her. That her pen ignited the familiar, bringing words to mythic truths on the pages of one of the most influential books of the 20th century.