When you encounter an artistic masterpiece, fully formed and finished, it’s easy to beat yourself up and think, “I could never be that good.” It’s torturous and misleading to think that Picasso or Beyoncé or Meryl Streep are just naturally, effortlessly that good (well, maybe Beyoncé and Meryl are always that good). We don’t see the first drafts of most masterpieces or performances, but with Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, we get that chance. It’s a reminder that even Pulitzer Prize winners write vomit drafts.
Not that Go Set a Watchman is anything close to a “vomit draft,” as many of us call that first attempt at putting anything on the page, no matter how heinous and putrid and mortifying. Yes, beloved Atticus Finch is now a taciturn, arthritic racist, instead of the compassionate, strong, saint so many came to love in To Kill a Mockingbird. And yes, there are some convoluted monologues about politics and race right alongside some cornball humor in Go Set a Watchman, but as a historical document the book is a fascinating read. It’s also fascinating to imagine the writer’s process as you’re reading along.
This version of the story, written before To Kill a Mockingbird and taking place years later, when Scout (who now goes by Jean Louise) is in her mid-20s and visiting her tiny Southern hometown of Macomb, Alabama, from New York, will be tough to swallow for anyone who held Atticus (or Scout, for that matter) up on a pedestal since grade school. Some reviewers have praised the book, and others have called it “a mess.” But of course it’s “a mess” compared to Lee’s magnum opus. Writing is rewriting, as they say. To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t just spring from her imagination onto the page. First, there was Go Set a Watchman, with all of its flaws and disappointments.
Every writer should read Go Set a Watchman, just as a reminder that you’re not the only one who struggles with dialogue or structure or finding your voice. It’s like a 278-page course in writing, and rewriting, and letting go.
Kill Your Darlings
When Lee sent Go Set a Watchman to publishers, one editor told her to rewrite the story from young Scout’s point of view. That would be devastating news for some writers, who might say, “I worked on this thing and poured my soul into it for two years — no way in hell I’m changing it, you maniac!” Instead of having a meltdown, Lee took that advice. “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,” Lee said in a statement. If you’ve written the next War and Peace and an editor or agent tells you to make it more like 50 Shades of Grey, you probably need to get a new agent. Sometimes, though, you have to kill your darlings, listen to an editor, and let go. It’s often the right thing to do, no matter how painful it feels in the moment.
Show, Don’t Tell
If To Kill a Mockingbird gave us a conveniently feel-good look at racism in the South, Go Set a Watchman offers up a much more complex view of the issues. You get the sense that Lee is working things out and, at times, screaming from a soapbox. Or trying to. There’s a lot of clunky dialogue about politics and race and the Constitution in Go Set a Watchman. It reminds you of the “show, don’t” tell rule, which is really more of a screenwriting rule, but it applies here too. The characters are spelling it all out for us, and it’s harder to stay emotionally invested in a scene when a character is saying things like, “No matter what its political bonds, a nation with its own people, existing within a nation…” Yawn. In To Kill a Mockingbird Lee saved the lengthy speeches for Atticus in the courtroom, where they belong.
Find Your Voice
Finding your voice isn’t as easy as walking down to the corner bodega and finding a Diet Coke, unfortunately. It takes practice, patience, and a lot of crappy first drafts. You can sense Lee’s evolution as a writer when you read Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird. What was awkward in Watchman becomes lyrical later on. But that didn’t happen on the first try.
Don’t. Stop. Writing.
You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again: The good stuff happens when you push past your comfort zone, rework the draft even when you don’t think you have it in you, and keep on writing even if an editor tells you to rewrite your entire novel.
So check out Go Set a Watchman, and then go revise that novel/poem/play/essay you’re working on — however long it takes.