Monday, March 2, 2009

The Fear of Success

If ever there were a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma -- to borrow from Winston Churchill's famous quote -- it's Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. I've often said I'd rather write one memorable book -- and one memorable character like Scout Finch -- than a hundred that all run together. And that's exactly what Ms. Lee did. Wrote one incredibly memorable, Pulitzer prize-winning book, which has sold millions of copies worldwide, and has never been out of print since its 1960 release. Wow.

What writer among us wouldn't give her shift bar to achieve what she achieved? And yet, the world is left with the mystery that is Harper Lee. What stories have remained inside Nelle Harper Lee all these years, just waiting to be birthed? Could it really be there wasn't another great novel in her? Many great novels, in fact? Is it that she couldn't find another story as important as this one? Might other great Harper Lee novels have diminished the impact Mockingbird has made on the world for five decades now? Could it be that the bar was set so high with her first novel, that Ms. Lee brushed off her hands, said, "Well done!" and walked away, never to look back again?

Or was there a fear that she might never clear that bar again?

Her cousin, Richard Williams, has quoted her as saying, "When you have a hit like that, you can't go anywhere but down." My research tells me she worked many years on a second novel -- how I would love to see it! -- but never finished it, and certainly never sought publication of it. She lived a reclusive life, never granting interviews, never seeking the accolades her exquisite success would have afforded her.

So is that it? Was Harper Lee foiled by fear? No one, it seems, was more surprised than she by the enormous impact made by her debut novel: "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 . . . I hoped for a little . . . but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."

Sort of hoped someone would like it? I'd say she got her wish. Unfortunately, Harper Lee's retiring personality wasn't wired for the kind of fame Mockingbird brought her. But I can't help think Ms. Lee cheated the world -- and maybe herself most of all -- by not having tried to clear the bar again. I secretly hope that when her time on earth is through, that the world will be surprised and gifted with a plethora of unpublished works, an inheritance of the richest kind, from one of the world's greatest literary figures.

As for myself, there's a lot I fear about this writing life. I fear the next story I attempt might be aborted. I fear a lot of what I have to do to promote what I've published so far. But then I hear, Fear not . . . Don't be afraid . . . And I rememer I'm not alone as I try to live out the call.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. What do you fear? Any other examples of an author who quit with one incredible work?


Patti Hill said...

I'm sorry, too, that Harper Lee didn't give us more Scout or another delicious character to love or a story to unsettle the heart, only to roost there forever more.

As far as fear and writing--I fear failure with every book. However, my compulsion to write is stronger than my fear of pinch-faced reviewers and less-than-enthusiastic readers, who are as imaginary as my characters, only they speak louder. Am I sounding delusional yet? If you're a writer or artist, you'll understand. There's an invisible audience that's always shouting out their distaste for our work. These are the voices that keep us unsettled enough to work harder to strengthen a character, tighten narrative, and refine the story, so we mustn't villify them too badly.

As for other one-hit wonders, consider Olive Anne Banks of Cold Sassy Tree fame. She wrote this book as a respite from cancer treatments, and it took her 8 1/2 years to do so. She did publish a sequel that is only mentioned in polite passing. Leaving Cold Sassy was published posthumously.

Also, we better mention Pearl S. Buck who was the first woman to win both the Pulitzer and Nobel for The Good Earth. Mrs. Buck was a PROLIFIC writer, but her other works are largely overlooked. The Good Earth doesn't even show up in women's lit compilations. Why? This is only my humble opinion: Buck was an anachronism. Born of Civil War-era parents and raised in isolation in China, she reflected a Victorian/Eastern ethic. The success of The Good Earth relied on giving the western world a look into a strange yet familiar agricultural society, that, in the early 30s was quite relatable. Her contemporary books were too didactic to gain much of a following.

Sorry to be so chatty this early in the morning. Sharon, your blog touched a nerve!

Anonymous said...

I imagine you read Charles Shields' "Mockingbird" as you read about Harper Lee (Here's a link:

What struck me about Lee in that biography was how much help she received to produce "To Kill a Mockingbird"--she wrote the book for years, with an advance and all of New York's publishing world practically sitting at her feet. Pretty amazing, all in all.

(Especially from the agenting point of view. Being Truman Capote's cousin and confidant seemed to help as well--which just proves any publicity is good publicity.)

I agree with both Sharon and Patti; I'd like nothing more than to write a book that affects people in a positive way--whether it sells (in my case, at all), or not. :-)

Or, whether it's fiction or not! :-)

Laura J. Davis said...

I could be mistaken, but wasn't Margaret Mitchell's book, Gone With the Wind, her only book?

I am relieved to know that I'm not the only one who has this fear. With my first book, I was a writing fiend! I currently have 3 books on the go now and I can't seem to get as excited about them as with my first book. Why is that? I think you answered the question for me today. Thank you Sharon!

Lori Stanley Roeleveld said...

It's quite a modern phenomenon that we equate success with quantity. If I produce one solid work like To Kill A Mockingbird am I not a successful writer? Is it only success if I can repeat this success? Some of us were created for series of successes and others for singular, solitary works. "One-hit wonder" is a bitter phrase made up by those who have yet to hit the bullseye even that once. Write what you are called to write, what you are compelled to write, what you are driven to write and passionate about writing and nothing else. The rest should line tomorrows birdcages, it is merely scales practiced before the symphony begins.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

I have heard (read) that modern publishers are investing as much in the brand (author) as they are in the individual work itself. So it makes sense that more than one work is expected.

I'm with Patti so far-- no matter what I fear (or what other emotions are galloping through me) I'm a storyteller and can't quit.

One author I wish I could read more of (she wrote two books, roughly 20 years apart) is Elisabeth Marie Pope. Her books are some of the only ones I've consumed where the interesting similes or twists of showing something don't draw attention to themselves.

Many other books have gained my notice on "originality of language," but they've always done so by first saying look how clever I am.

I think the difference is that Pope used her new angles during movement of the action in a way that kept the story moving forward, while in the other stories the language was too obviously for the language's sake, not the story's.

Kathleen Popa said...

Overcomer, you make a good point. Harper Lee is a successful author, and maybe she was only supposed to write Mockingbird (and participate in the writing of Capote's In Cold Blood). Who can tell?

But I don't agree that "One-hit wonder" is a bitter phrase made up by frustrated novelists. I think it's a mournful phrase made up by hungry readers.

Michelle, I'd never heard that Charles Shields had written Lee's biography. It sounds interesting. I did find this wonderful review of his book by Garrison Keillor. He pictures the young Harper Lee pitching her manuscript out the window, only to return later, weeping, to retrieve the pages from the snow. Boy, doesn't that sound about right?

Patti and Laura, when I learned that To Dance in the Desert was going to be published, the first thing I felt was shock. The second thing was terrific anxiety. No doubt that says something dark about my mental health, but there it is. I felt like a dog who actually caught the car: Now what??

Martin Reaves said...

As one writer yet to obtain one-hit-wonder status (or any hit status for that matter) I suppose I'll weigh in with my nickel(inflation don'cha know).

I think there are a few things at work here. Primarily, we that hunger and thirst after righteous prose can't imagine hitting the target dead center with our first arrow and not immediately notching another one to see if can split the shaft of the first Robin Hood style.

But I think Lawrence Block nailed this phenomenon in his delightful book on writing, Telling Lies For Fun and Profit. In the section "It Takes More Than Talent" he discusses the one-book author, stating that it might not be so much that a person only had one book in them, but that they maybe had a strong desire or drive to write that book but no particular desire to become a writer per se. Having written that booked, they have slaked their hunger. Some people climb one mountain or run one marathon and let it go at that. Others define themselves as mountain climbers or marthoners, Block says, and go on doing those things as long as they have breath in their bodies.

Because ultimately (this is me talking now), if we are passionate about Writing, it is the work that we crave and not the end product. Sounds noble, eh? Again, it is the difference between wanting to have written a book (doesn't everyone, at some point or other, claim they want to write a book???) and wanting to be a writer. And what sane person would willingly choose this profession amongst the brother- and sisterhood of hacks and scribblers if they didn't truly enjoy the solitary weirdness of it all.

I think it comes down to whether we have the fire or not. Did Harper Lee have the fire? This is not the same question as "Was she good," or "Did she have talent." Those questions are not even worthy of her. But did she have the fire to be a writer, with the long hours, lonely days, not to mention her proximity to Capote? Would she want that for herself, if the fire were not there?

The story goes that there was an aspiring young musician who cornered a world-famous violinist and begged the master to listen to him play. If the master was encouraging the young man would devote his life to music. So he played and when he finished the master said: "You lack the fire." Decades later, the two met again, the young man now a successful business man. "You changed my life," the man said. "It was a bitter disappointment, giving up music, but I've had a good life in the world of commerce. But I've always wondered, how could you tell so readily that I lacked the fire?"

"Oh, I hardly listened when you played," replied the master. "That's what I tell everyone who plays for me--that they lack the fire."
"But that's unforgivable," said the younger man. "I could have been another Kreisler, another Heifitz--"
The old man shook his head. "You don't understand," he said. "If you had had the fire, you would have paid no attention to me."

Anonymous said...

Patti, yes ma'am, I share your fear. I'm starting a new novel this week, and I have the same fear and trembling as always, but the characters are calling to me, want their story told.

Michelle, I've not read Shields' Mockingbird, but now that I know about it, I certainly will. Maybe I'll find some of the answers I'm looking for.

Laura, you're right about Ms. Mitchell, of course, but as Bonnie pointed out to me, she died an early death, so who knows what else she might have accomplished?

Overcomer, absolutely Harper Lee was a success. I didn't mean to intimate anything less. I've just never understood how she could put down her pen -- if indeed she did.

Mott, you may have answered the question. It may be true that Harper Lee had one book -- one remarkably fine book -- in her, and once it was written, her hunger was slaked. That would make her no less a writer, though, at least in my book. Did she have the fire? I guess she did when it mattered most.

Amy Jane, I relate very much to what you and Patti said. I'm a storyteller, and (so far) I can't quit.

Katy, I'm so glad she plucked them from the snow.

Unknown said...

In a couple of weeks I will be introducing a discussion on branding -- the concept of making oneself unique and identifiable because of his or writing style, genre, or subject matter. Specifically, I'll be sharing how to write what is called a branding statement.

However, underlying the concept of branding is an assumption about writing. Branding assumes that a writer's work will have some of the same identifiable characteristics of previous works.

Branding also assumes that expectations raised in the reader of an author's first work -- Mockingbird, for Lee -- will be met and perhaps even expanded in a second work. That would be what we would call, "writing to your brand."

Not all of us (whether to our good or bad) have written to brand. I remember writing The Mormon Mirage and when asked for a followup, I truthfully said I had written everything I knew about my experiences in Mormonism in it. (Not until years later when a publisher asked me to write a book chronicling the experiences of other ex-Mormons did I return to that subject, and then with great reluctance.) In the interim, I wrote what I had passion and conviction to write: a book about hospitality in the Bible, one about the elements of love in 1 Corinthians 13, one about the stewardship of time, talents and possessions, one about crisis (our daughter's eosinophilic skull tumor and later closed head concussion), and poems and articles. Looking back, I probably did not meet the expectations of those who had high praise for the uniqueness of The Mormon Mirage. I certainly did not write to brand. Even after writing three subsequent books about Mormonism and cults, I wrote a children's book, a book about Bible marriage customs, one about Rahab.

But even so, all of those (with the exception of the children's books) were heavily-documented non fiction. Now I've gone and done it again -- written a novel and started another.

So I'm not a one-hit wonder. But I deal with the fear of many others who write in various genres and styles: Is only one of my books a wonder? Are any of them?

The answer for me lies not in sales figures. It lies in a series of thick folders from people who have written me over the years and said that God used my writing to help -- and in many cases, change-- their lives.

I doubt that my agent (had she been my agent, those years ago) would have advised me to take the track I took. But I would want to believe, have staked my professional career on this hope, one I urge other beginning writers to consider: that I have indeed written to the expectations of the reader.

One Reader, in fact. He's the wonder, the One I want to shine, the brand I want to have.

Latayne C Scott

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Related (I think) to this topic is the admonition I once read about "Don't save anything for your 'next book.'"

The advice encompasses knowing what you're *really* writing about and trusting that if you have more story to tell (thinking Noveling here) that will come at the right time.

I am working on a project now that went down many rabbit trails till I realized it was more than one story.

Once i had that revelation I started squirreling bits and pieces away for "the next book" until I realized that meant I didn't trust the second story to be interesting enough on its own.

Well, if that's the case, all the "good stuff" I was saving might never see the light of day, and wouldn't that be a waste.

Once I knew what I was really doing for #1, that finally unmuddied the waters for #2.

#2 still may never see the light of day, but #1 will certainly (at least in my opinion) be better than before I "saved out" some good parts.