It's Never Love at First Draft

Why would anyone want to read the original manuscript of a young writer who subsequently wrote a world-renowned classic, except to trace the development of that writer? Why, upon reading it, would anyone ascribe meaning to that manuscript so as to diminish, question or require a re-thinking of the writer's fabulously successful published work? That first manuscript served as a waystation on a young writer's journey to produce her novel, nothing else. It merits no consideration in and of itself.

Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman was not given an offer for publication back when it was first submitted to its publisher nearly 50 years ago, for a simple, perfect, reason: It was not good enough. This status quo endured for another simple reason: Harper Lee did not want it published, and her circle of intimates honored her preferences. Most likely, she did not view it as worthy of publication. After all, it was simply a draft and Lee was a champion of great writing.

I can only see one reason why Lee's Go Set A Watchman found its way to publication in 2015: The self-interest of Lee's publisher, HarperCollins trumped the author's own long-standing and well-known preference. It's hard to believe Ms. Lee cares about money after all these years, although not at all hard to believe that, with the passing of her older sister less than a year ago, who also served her advocate and legal protector, Lee was bullied into agreeing to publication.

It's easy to imagine why Tay Hohoff, Ms. Lee's original editor at J.B. Lippincott, worked closely with the then-budding writer to develop the rough manuscript she submitted into a different story. Simply, Ms. Hohoff didn't believe the original story was worthy of publication, but she believed in the writer's promise. Ms. Lee had work to do. A lot. The original manuscript may have shared the same locale and some main characters as the published novel, but that's it. Kudos to the writer, and likely the editor as well, for reshaping instead of abandoning those ingredients and combining them into a masterpiece.

Having recently completed the years-long process of writing a recently published book, I can easily imagine how Harper Lee's experience as a new writer could have mirrored mine in some way. (Not for a moment would I delude myself by thinking my book's future will mirror To Kill A Mockingbird.)

I don't know how many short essays I wrote in the run-up to starting my memoir, some about topics that ended up in the book, many that didn't. When I finally started writing the memoir itself, I spent a year stringing together sentences and paragraphs before I realized I didn't know where the story was heading. I couldn't move it forward. Everywhere I looked, it seemed the action doubled back on itself into a cycle of sameness. I needed help.

Luckily, I found some, in the shape of a writing coach/editor who knew her stuff. A writer so green I needed a formal introduction to phrases like "story arc" (when I first heard the phrase, I thought of rainbow colored paragraphs), I discovered much of the work with my editor, Kelley Eskridge, involved not just writing on my own, but researching ideas and backstory, sketching out possible themes and metaphors, talking, thinking, musing, debating, and yes, even some negotiating.

I'd written one hundred plus pages, tens of thousands of words, and after reading all that, Kelley didn't know what my story was about. As it turned out, I didn't either. Was it about rowing? My dysfunctional family? My relationship with my mother?

I probably tossed out more words during my writing process than made it into my memoir. I'm not the only writer for whom that may be true. Much of writing, it turns out, is rewriting.

Go Set A Watchman should not be viewed as another Harper Lee novel, nor even as a precursor to To Kill A Mockingbird. It represented a transitory stage of Lee's thinking, certainly a stage that she devoted countless hours to constructing, but it was an unfinished product. It was neither well-written nor a gripping story. (I personally found myself bored and unable to connect to any of the characters). It was a draft that held a kernel of a great idea, that an experienced editor saw and helped a novice writer develop to the point of excellence. Maybe the experience killed off Lee's interest in writing further; maybe the experience satisfied her to the point that she didn't want to attempt another round; maybe her unpredictably wild success sent her scurrying into lifelong seclusion. We will never really know.

Here's what we do know: To Kill A Mockingbird is an amazing novel. No matter what Go Set A Watchman says or doesn't say, no matter how the characters who appear in both stories are presented or misrepresented, the real novel is the one that was originally published, not the one that was originally submitted. What emerged from that early draft, an accumulation of discussion, debate, deep thought, and who knows how many crumpled pages, crossed out words and sentences, deleted paragraphs, rewritten sections, was a masterpiece. That's what we've been reading for nearly fifty years, and that's all that deserves to be remembered, not the mercenary act of a self-interested publishing house that took advantage of an aging, vulnerable writer.