Go Set a Watchman: Time To Reevaluate Our Heroes — and Our Conscience?

Go Set a Watchman

As I started Go Set a Watchman, Harper’s Lee’s highly anticipated sequel that is now being labeled as a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, I tried to manage my expectations. Early reviews and quick takes from the chapter released online a few days before told me that Atticus Finch wasn’t quite the beloved everyman hero that we all grew up with, and that Lee’s writing wasn’t exactly of TKAM standards. And of course, there’s all the controversy just over the actual discovery and publication of the novel – how could I not go into this without some sort of bias?

Upon finishing the book, two things were very clear to me: 1) yes, this definitely had the markings of a first draft that was then reworked and revised into what became TKAM, a novel that many call the greatest American novel of all time; and 2) adult Scout’s revelations about herself and her father quite closely mirror those of Americans during the Civil Rights Era – and if we’re being honest with ourselves, all the more today. If what they say is true, that Lee’s publisher thought her first draft of Watchman was too harsh and too real for those times and that’s why she vigorously edited it for a softer landing, one would think that in reading Watchman now, we would be ready and welcoming, rushing to give ourselves pats on the back for overcoming racial tension and accepting the federal government’s interference into our lives for the purpose of equality. But based on some reactions, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

There’s no need to spend a lot of time discussing the stylistic merits of Watchman. I plan to reread TKAM to remind myself of that masterpiece, but I do think Watchman misses the mark in a few spots. Filler and backstory take up too much time, and some of the extended flashbacks don’t seem to serve a purpose to the larger plot, which doesn’t start to get moving until late in the story. Then all of a sudden, there’s an explosion of dialogue, lots of yelling, and a somewhat unsatisfying ending. The entire book takes place over the course of three days: a short amount of time to have a second coming-of-age journey and major life revelation. Despite all this, Lee’s distinctive details shine through, and old characters come to life again, even those who only appear in flashbacks, like Dill or Jem.

So what’s the real fuss about? Watchman comes during a pivotal time for Americans, while we are still absorbing months of seemingly unending racial unrest and injustice. At its heart, Watchman is about reevaluating our heroes – whether they are parents, police, politicians, explorers, innovators, sports champions, or characters on the page and screen. TKAM is written from the point of view of 5-year-old Scout who adores her father with the rest of us; she’s blind to his faults, and blind to the world beyond Maycomb, perhaps even beyond her own front yard. Watchmen shows us Atticus Finch and the world from the eyes of an adult; Scout goes by Jean Louise, and she’s no longer innocent, naïve, or completely enamored with her father and her hometown.

Jean Louise’s experience isn’t anything new. Haven’t we all experienced a second coming-of-age at some point, in which we realize that the people that we once perceived as perfect in nature and in principle are actually flawed and susceptible to change? The people who make us laugh, who inspire us to be great and to go the distance, who make our world a bit brighter (and perhaps more rose-colored) – many of them eventually let us down as they fall victim to human foible and or give in to pressures from society and themselves, for better or worse, right or wrong. Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, and the Founding Fathers; all revered for their strength, wit, leadership, ideas, or courage, and yet all examples of (and in some instances, certainly not excusable) the capriciousness of the human spirit. Atticus Finch, to our dismay, now falls into that category, but are we truly surprised?

Humans love to watch people rise and fall, but they often deny their involvement in the process, even if that means turning a blind eye or a deaf ear, only to be indignant after the fact. We have always searched for individuals we can prop up on pedestals engraved with titles of our choosing: hero, warrior, champion, leader, genius, changemaker. And yet, we are unwilling to recognize that these labels are only a part of what makes them who they are, and that they are vulnerable to displaying their other, not so well-liked attributes just as easily as we are. So when it does happen, we are shocked, or perhaps outraged. But are we more upset that our hero messed up or that our carefully tended ideals have been tarnished by the realities of life? Or is it, like in Scout’s case, realizing that we won’t always believe the same things as the ones we loved and learned from? Is it not realistic that a younger Atticus Finch could defend a black man and promote racial equality, yet grow jaded and even prejudiced over the course of 20 years as he faces tremendous change in his life? While we may hope that everyone always changes for the better, we must recognize that it is hardly representative of what actually happens. A week’s worth of news is example enough: just when we feel we have taken a step forward as society, embracing tenets of love and tolerance and progress, we take two steps back and are inundated with rape and murder, hate and treachery.

Reading Go Set a Watchman does not have to destroy a long-held image of a favorite character (and by the way, he’s just a character, not a real person), nor does it have to alter our view of Harper Lee, who for many years was known as a one-hit wonder. Watchman has given us a chance to look behind the scenes at what it takes to write a brilliant and enduring work of fiction. TKAM can still stand on its own, whether or not you read Watchman and whether you love it or hate it. But more importantly, Watchman also invites us to take a closer look within ourselves to discover what we believe and stand for as individuals, who we look up to and stand by and why, and how we can find a way to meld those two together to bravely go forward in this world.

Have you read Go Set a Watchman? What did you think?

It’s all in the details

don note
When I was in elementary school, my parents would check my homework each night. Math problems, language arts, all of it. They’d point out errors (before there was a thing called typos) and make me go back and fix it, until I had a clean assignment to turn in. While it would sometimes frustrate me, it taught me early on the importance of attention to detail. At that time, I was rushing through things quickly because it wasn’t much of a challenge, and I just wanted to be done with my homework so I could read. My dad impressed upon me as early as age six that sloppy work doesn’t cut it, whether it was in my homework assignment, while completing a chore, or playing sports. It definitely made an impact – I am a self-acknowledged neat freak, I once organized my CDs and books by genre and artist/author, and I have a solid membership in the grammar snob squad.

In my very first semester of college at Miami University, I learned another important lesson about details from my English professor. For each book we read, Don had us write our analyses in the form of a letter to him. “Dear Don,” each one would begin, and then we’d outline our thoughts on stories from Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James, Wharton, and more, weaving in our own experiences with love, loss, travel, and friendship. Don would write us back with little Post-its and margin notes, filled with bits of wisdom and words of affirmation or understanding. “Me, too!” or “I agree!” were common. But the best ones were his gentle critiques and prompts to get us to show more and tell less, to use real examples, and to dig deeper. “Do you have a story, Jenna?” he’d write. Or “I need more details!” My foundation was all there, and I got the concepts, but I was too vague in my examples and not detailed enough in my descriptions. Don knew my writing could have more to it, and he pushed me to explore it.

I continued to look for the details as a reporter on my school paper, and then in my newspaper internships throughout college. Once I began work in digital communications for nonprofits and foundations in 2007, my writing took a different turn. While I had to be accurate with stats and program information, I was frequently told that shorter is better, and so long-form stories about the people these organizations supported went out in favor of 200-word blog posts and soon, 140-character tweets. General descriptions and umbrella messaging took precedent over exact details and deep dive storytelling to appeal to multiple audiences and drive actions and donations. On the side, I continued to write in my personal blog, alternating between specifics and big concepts about self-reflection and growth.

In recent months, I’ve picked up storytelling again as I pursue a more focused freelance writing career. While I adore reading fiction, I’ve always preferred nonfiction or historical fiction to creative writing, which is why I so loved my days at newspapers. As I’m interviewing people for their stories, I’m put back into a place where the details matter: ages, names, physical traits, quirks, interests. There is no fudging here or creating a character upon which someone is based. These are real people, with real stories. As I get back into this pattern, I’m applying it to my work with nonprofit clients when they want stories, and ultimately, I truly believe the details that make a person who they are resonates with donors more than anything else.

I recently sent Don an essay I wrote for submission to a travel writing contest. The subject was near and dear to me: illustrating a strong sense of place in my hometown in Louisiana. In the 12 years since I had his class, Don has never ceased to be a friend and mentor, encouraging me to keep writing and even convincing me to attend and participate in the International Hemingway Conference next summer. When Don sent back his thoughts on my piece, I had to smile. He really liked my work, and said it was “evocative.” But what came next was even better: “If I were to suggest anything to make it even more effective, it would be to be more specific in a couple of key places. But, Jenna, I almost always want more specifics! I’m especially enamored of proper nouns. And dialogue.”

It was so like Don to ask for more detail – and I needed the reminder. He pointed out a few places that could use specifics, and when I added them in, he was right of course. The story really was better for all of its tiny little details.

Just think of all the things you read each day or shows or movies you watch, or music you listen to. Or think about your own experiences and memories. While the theme or the action or the beat may provide for a great foundation, it’s the specifics that bring it all to life – the colors, tastes, sounds, or the words. When we care about the details, it makes our work and our stories more complete, more real, and more impactful.

Say “Hello” and Change Your Life Story

Photo credit: Jen Collins

I have always been a people person. While I cherish my alone time and am happy to amuse myself and relax, I usually thrive in an environment that requires me to meet new people, ask questions, and get personal. Perhaps that’s why being a writer was always top of mind for me; I recognized early on that everyone has a story to tell. Choosing journalism in college was a no brainer: it gave me a chance to pound the pavement and then write about what I learned.

Making conversation with the person in line next to me at the coffee shop or grocery store? No problem. Showing up at a wedding/party/event and knowing only the host? Perhaps intimidating at first, but nothing that can’t be handled. While I’m never going into the telemarketing business (I have my limits), I give a lot of credit to the act of simply starting a conversation with someone that’s near you, whether physically or virtually. In fact, many of my relationships and experiences have been started with something as little as saying “Hello” to the person next to me. I have countless examples of how my life was influenced or impacted in this way; you never know where it will lead you.

At least once a week, I visit a coffee shop that’s near the library where I volunteer. At one point, I realized an elderly man and a younger man were there working behind laptops every time I went in. It seemed like the younger guy (probably around my age) was helping the older man with a project. I was immediately curious. Who were these guys? Why were they always at the coffee shop, no matter when I stopped in? I was determined to find out, and while some people might think it brash, it’s what I do. So one day about a month ago, I went over to them and said, “Hello, I may sound a little nosy, but I see you here all the time. What are you up to?” The older man, whom I learned is Mo, smiled and told me about an online platform they were creating to help communities connect with each other in times of emergency. Then he said, “What are you doing here?” Now, every time I go to the coffee shop, I get an update from Mo on his project; I get the sense he looks forward to our little mini meetings as much as I do. Who knows where it will lead?

In the same coffee shop, I observed a woman’s laptop background was all Elvis. I asked her about it, and next thing you know, we had a half hour discussion about the book she was writing on the King of Rock and Roll, and how you don’t hear singers like Sinatra and Presley anymore. Next time I see her there, I’m going to get an update from her, too. And the same goes for another elderly man who sat down next to me one day when I was writing and started telling me about the book he’d published and some of the jobs he’d held in his lifetime. He, too, said that he can’t help but talk to people when he sees them; it’s just what he likes to do. I was happy to oblige him for a few minutes.

So I got to thinking about some of the other people that have played a role in my own story because of a chance meeting or what started as a simple introduction. Here are a few that are top of mind, and I’ve also included a few from friends who shared their own experiences.

  • A nice lady started talking to me on the plane on one of my many trips down to Louisiana as a child. Mrs. Mercedes and I became pen pals for years until she passed away.
  • When I posted this question on Facebook, my friend of 18 years, Molly, said of our own friendship, “Gym class!” As I told her, “And the rest was history!”
  • A sweet young woman named Brooke started chatting with me in the bathroom of my residence hall sophomore year at college. I was a bridesmaid in her wedding, and although we haven’t seen each other in years, we talk on the phone every couple of months.
  • Another friend named Molly came across a crowded DC bar at a networking happy hour and introduced herself after seeing my nametag. I’ve since attended her wedding and celebrated the birth of her baby.
  • I followed up with a guy who spoke at a college journalism conference when I moved to DC and he connected me with the person that would become my first boss.
  • Two people that I admire very much and look to as mentors and inspirations are in my life because I met one at a conference happy hour (Matt) and because I emailed the other after reading her blog (Sloane).
  • I exchanged polite background information and email addresses with a woman next to me at the library volunteer orientation last summer. Now, Linda and I see each other weekly and text like high school girls.
  • My friend Michael says he met a good friend in 2005 at a conference when he had to “rescue her from a creepy old guy that was half drunk.” She’s in NYC, he’s in Portland now, but they still remain in touch today.
  • Former coworker Karin says “False fire alert at the university residence. Both in our PJs outside at 20 degrees. Hubby and I, 15 years ago.”

I could go on and on of course. There are also many instances of starting conversations with someone on Twitter and those interactions leading to in-person meetings and friendships or pen pals (Leslie, I’m looking at you!). But you get the idea. Say “hello” to someone today and they may become a part of your story forever.

Got an example to add? I’d love to hear how a “Hello” turned into a significant relationship or opportunity – how did your story combine with someone else’s?

School’s out: My year as a tutor

Photo credit: Clemson Libraries/Flickr

Photo credit: Clemson Libraries/Flickr

As the school year comes to a close in the next few weeks, I will be finishing my final sessions with the students I’ve been tutoring since last summer. When I went into this gig, it was to explore the idea of teaching, to see if I wanted to go into education in some capacity, and because I’ve always wanted to try tutoring. I walked into the tutoring and test prep center in my neighborhood and cold applied, acknowledging that I had no teaching experience, no experience working directly with kids, and no experience in special education. But I did have a passion for the English language, and for helping students communicate better and succeed in school and in life.

All these months later, I hope that I’ve made an impact on my students’ work, now and in the future. For some, I know I have – the test scores and the grades prove it. And beyond the grades, I think that I’ve been able to expose these kids to new ideas and concepts, empower them to express themselves more confidently and creatively, and to utilize their resources and surroundings to find solutions, not only for their homework, but for some of the bigger questions and challenges they will face as they grow up.

For me it’s been a test in patience, a challenge to be creative (with curriculum and style), an opportunity to learn about new things, a refresher in some of the basics (hello, functions and graphing), and a chance to nerd out on some of my favorite subjects and topics. Browsing NPR.org and The Atlantic for articles for my ESL student to read wasn’t homework for me – it fit right into my daily routine. Rereading Much Ado About Nothing, or The Bell Jar for the first time, or working through the rhetorical and literary devices in prose and poetry are all up my alley, and while my students may not be over the moon about those assignments, I got to be a little excited and I hope some of that rubbed off on them. And even when I was working through middle school math, I got to explore different learning styles and approaches to fundamentals that I hadn’t touched in 20 years, and it gave me a new appreciation for what it’s like to be the student – it helped me to be a better teacher.

As with any job or extracurricular, there were tough moments, too. You’re dealing with parents, juggling schedules, disinterested kids, and sometimes really tough subject matter. And while I won’t be pursuing a new career in education right now, the frustrating moments of this past year have been as enlightening as the satisfactory ones. I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with all of them, and I’m glad I took on the challenge for myself. I look forward to continuing it in the future.

Have you worked as a tutor? What have you learned from the experience?

I love being a newbie knitter

knitting collage

Excitement. Nervousness. Enthusiasm. Drive. Curiosity. These are just a few of the feelings we may have when exploring a new hobby, topic of interest, job, or relationship. Think of the first few times you played an instrument, read books by a new author, or took surfing lessons or dance classes. There’s something about being a newbie to something that’s like no other stage — everything is bright and shiny and fun and you want to throw all of your time, money, and effort at it.

Nearly six months into learning how to knit, I’m still very much a newbie, and I’m loving it. While I look forward to becoming more advanced and being able to master intarsia and fair isle and bust out a pair of socks in an hour, right now, I’m enjoying the ride of being a beginner.

As a young girl, my grandmother taught me how to sew, and I’ve always liked to be crafty in that way. I made a simple baby quilt as a teen, and started one for me, with the idea that I’d give it to my first baby someday. That second quilt is still in progress (long story). No one in my family knits, although some crochet or do needlepoint. I bought a knitting kit at Michael’s circa 2008, and after an hour of attempting to cast on and knit one row, stuffed my kit and two beautiful (and not appropriate for newbies) skeins of yarn into a box. Last fall, I decided to give knitting another shot, and after studying the Stitch ‘n’ Bitch guide and a few YouTube videos, I finally figured out how to cast on, knit, and purl. My first piece was a swatch of course, as all knitters recommend. I got help with the bind off from my friend who loaned me the book, and then I was ready to tackle my first real project — a headband.

I spent a lot of time trying not to drop stitches so that I wouldn’t have to fix them (and sadly, I still don’t really know how), and figuring out the most comfortable position for my hands and the yarn. I went back to Michael’s again and again for new knitting accoutrement and other practice yarn. By Christmas, I had made two pot holders for my mom (one with one of those first skeins I bought back in 2008!), and headbands for me and my parents. But my real goal was ahead: a baby blanket for one of my closest friends. I was determined to figure it out by the due date in February. So I bought some fuzzy (too fuzzy) baby yarn and got to work in January. The yarn made a pattern or colorwork unnecessary, so I just knitted flat on circular needles in garter, and in the process got fuzz all over the carpet and couch for two months. I was totally over the project by the time it reached the desirable dimensions, but I was pleased as punch, and was able to ship it off to my friend and her new baby just two weeks after the birth.

The baby blanket wasn’t the only project I was working on: I also had (have) a running list of friends having babies, and have been making little hats as well. And in between all of this, I’m experimenting with new patterns (seed stitch), new yarns (check out Knit Picks for good deals), new techniques (Craftsy has some great, cheap video classes), and new needles (finally bought double pointed on the recommendation of my local yarn store). While I may not need to need a bunch of winter wear for myself here in San Diego, I’m on the lookout for other projects (“Mom, want me to knit you a placemat?” and “Mom, I made you an eyeglass holder with stash yarn.”) to keep my hands busy while watching Law & Order reruns at night or sports on the weekends.

One of the best things about being a knitter (new or not) is that there no shortage of advice, tips, and patterns — and a lot of it is free. I haven’t bought a single knitting magazine or pattern book because there is YouTube, Pinterest, knitting blogs, friends, yarn stores, and the mother of resources, Ravelry. So while I may still be putting off really figuring out how to fix a dropped stitch, I can spend too much time finding new patterns and buying way more yarn than I need (this is eerily like my addiction to books — you can never have too many!).

I asked friends and family who knit or crochet if they had any tips to share, or just general thoughts about their own adventure with the craft. Here’s what they had to say. If you have any stories or tips about knitting that you’d like to share, please comment!

  mary blanketAunt Mary Beth: My first prayer shawl after joining the Prayer Shawl Ministry Group at church. I had not crocheted for years but quickly remembered the relaxing art that it is. The plus is that these items go to cancer patients and are blessed by our priest during our meetings. I have not been to deliver any yet but I am told that they are very much appreciated by all. Also made by our group are both crocheted and knitted gloves, hats and lap blankets. I look forward to one day delivering them. I hear from the other members that it is a wonderful experience.

Molly: I’ve started incorporating knitting with my quilts. I’m working a quilt now with knitted accents. It’s so relaxing to do both at the same time. When one gets frustrating or I reach a creative block, I’ll switch to the other. I like to sit at night, when it’s finally quiet and just “Quit.” (Note: turns out that Molly (my friend since childhood) and I both used the same Bernat baby yarn to knit a nearly identical blanket/car seat cover, at the same time.)

  karin hatKarin: I crocheted this hat for Andy when I was preggo and he wore it pretty much the entire winter. Found the basic baby hat pattern on YouTube and added the eyes and horns. Was done in three hours.

  Linda: I was given two prayer shawls while my Mom was dying in the hospital. I felt so comforted knowing someone had made these items just to help buoy the spirits of people like me, a heartbroken daughter. To those of you who make these lovely shawls (like Mary Beth), please know they are most appreciated. (Note: Linda is my knitting mentor and loaner of Stitch ‘n’ Bitch!)

  Brianne: It’s on my bucket list to learn how to crochet a baby blanket just like the one that was given to me as a little, tiny one. My plan is to learn before I have a baby one day!

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