Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why Harper Lee Never Wrote Again

Though this has little or nothing to do with photography, it does have a lot to do with creativity and with being an artist. Some artists, no matter their area of expertise, are endlessly prolific, churning out an unceasing number of canvases, or prints, or performances, or books. Other artists, like author Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, seem to have only one good effort in them. They create one stunning achievement and then nothing else. This can be frustrating for the audience and frightening for other artists.

Harper Lee wrote one of the most cherished books of the 20th Century and it was turned into one of the most cherished films of the 20th Century, yet she never had a follow-up. There was no second book or anything else. She became a recluse in New York City and stayed out of the public eye for the rest of her life. Why would this happen?

For working artists, Harper Lee's story and life must seem like a nightmare. To create the one good piece and then have the well of creativity run dry? Never to create again? That is a nightmare for creatives, but I don't think this was the case for Harper Lee. For her, one good work was enough and the benefits of the life of an artist and writer never came close to matching the drawbacks she experienced to make writing worthwhile for her. For her enough was enough.

Her friend, Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, told Harper Lee's side of the story:

“She once said to me when we were up late one night, sharing a bottle of scotch: ‘You ever wonder why I never wrote anything else?’ And I said, ‘Well, along with a million other people, yes’.

“I espoused two or three ideas. I said maybe you didn’t want to compete with yourself. She said, ‘Bullshit. Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again’."

For most people, the story of Harper Lee is baffling. Most believe that an artist should create and create until they die, never letting anything get in their way. So what is the lesson here? Well, sometimes, creating one good and beautiful thing is enough and being true to yourself is more important than anything else. The truth is, Harper Lee didn't have it in her to keep working as a writer and she knew it. And then she acted on that knowledge. You have to admire her for her sense of personal integrity.