The Obscure Early Lives of the Artists

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Every life viewed from the inside would be a series of defeats…

– George Orwell
The only person I know who didn’t like To Kill a Mockingbird is a British kid I used to tutor, Alexander Brown. He spent the first 150 pages thinking Scout was a gay boy. When we got to the end, he said, “Look, Amy, I may not read a lot of endings of books, but that is a rubbish ending.” As with most things in life, Alexander Brown is a contrarian. When the book was published in 1960, it won the Pulitzer Prize and was nominated for the National Book Award. It changed the national conversation on civil rights, sold thirty million copies and counting, and was ranked by Alexander’s compatriots, the assembled British librarians, as the number one book to read before you die, ahead of The Holy Bible at number two.

The film version opened fifty years ago, on Christmas Day 1962. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of all time. Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for Best Actor playing Atticus, and the film received eight total nominations.

It is much easier to think about Scout and Dill, about Oscars and Pulitzer Prizes and millions of copies, than about the ordinary day-to-day life in which the book took form. When Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize three days after her thirty-seventh birthday, she was a college and law school drop-out who had spent years working as a reservations agent for the airlines in order to write the book. Looking back, it is possible to see how Harper Lee got from point A to point B, as if pins on a map. From the perspective of point A though — which is the point of the view of the artist him- or herself — this is a trick in perception. When you are at point A, it’s not just that you can’t see point B, it’s that it doesn’t yet exist. It’s only your process and effort that creates point B. Point B might be extraordinary, but it is created by ordinary everyday effort.

I wanted to explore this difference between being the weedy uncertainty of the writing, and the Graceland-like enshrinement of the person. I wanted to get closer to the un-Kardashian obscurity in which Lee wrote, in a cold-water flat, “hop[ing] for the best and expect[ing] nothing.” Ironically, the way to do this was the embark on a life adventure I affectionately refer to as Stalking Harper Lee.

It turns out that if you want to stalk Harper Lee, you have to bring serious A game: the last person to do it rented the house next door — it was on the market. I possess far less commitment. I’ve written letters and joined the local museum. I do have idiot savant luck as a stalker: my trip coincides with the weekend of Harper Lee’s birthday. But the only real thing I have is the phone number of Dawn, a woman who had answered the phone at the museum and agreed to let me take her to breakfast.

I leave LaGuardia mid-morning on a Friday, passing a black SUV that is fully and shockingly engulfed in flames not twenty feet from the cars passing on the expressway. We are all one rubbernecking driver away from a fireball explosion ourselves. The Atlanta connection is tight enough I sprint four concourses to make my flight — a last bout of exercise that will serve me well in the coming days as I enter a near constant state of being offered baked goods. We have entered the land of Southern hospitality somewhere midair between Atlanta and Montgomery. The flight attendant tells a man reading his Kindle too late on the descent not that he’s being arrested when we land but “well, finish that one chapter. I don’t think you’re going to take the plane down.”

At the Montgomery Airport, I realize I don’t have Dawn’s number. I call the museum and a woman named Wanda answers, “First of all, which Dawn do you mean?”  In a town of 6,400 people, three of the museum’s volunteers are named Dawn. Wanda says the one I am looking for runs a lemonade stand out front and goes to look for her. When she’s not there, Wanda gives me Dawn’s number out of her own cell phone.

The energy of New York is as far behind as the burning car, as different an atmosphere as oxygen and CO2, as profound a switch as give and take: the Montgomery airport has one of the only rental car exits in America that does not threaten to shred your tires. The gas station I will use to refuel on my return is not an obstacle course of three cloverleaf interchanges and two service roads away but right across the street. Drivers not only use their turn signals, they use them if the car in front of them is turning and they are not.

The interstate — I-65 South — is an almost vacant road surrounded by lush green trees that make me think of water moccasins and childhood drives to the beach.

As a native of Alabama—born in Memphis but raised in Birmingham from the age of ten — I have driven within a half an hour of where Harper Lee, the physical person, resides for a long stretch of my life. She is so close to where I have been that it is shocking that my parents — the same mother who brought Halley’s Comet sweatshirts back from a medievalist conference in Kalamazoo — would not have asked us to drive a half hour off the main road to visit the official Literary Capital of Alabama. I meander taking photos of old buildings, alternately boarded up or offering tax services, and change clothes in the parking lot of an old closed grocery story. Just the act of being in the car feels liberating.

When, an hour later, I do turn off toward Monroeville, I pass under an old plane landing in an airfield, an elegant cropduster-sized craft coming in at a North by Northwest angle. These jaunty, brightly colored, bumble-bee, World War II planes must go over Harper Lee all the time. They look like toy flyers, except for the shininess of their paint; they are what toys are based on.

I pass the Sho Nuff country cooking sign, the bungalow house that has been turned into a Pentecostal church — its cross small in proportion like a toddler teetering on a rooftop. There is a casual homemade sign that says Gates of Zion at the scale and politeness of a large suburban mailbox, not far down from a proudly manicured house with a tall and ornate fence. The gas station is a bait and tackle, there’s an old roller skating rink, and the Christian bookstore has a billboard — a small one, but a billboard nonetheless — and it looks new. This is the lifeblood moment of the adventure. Nothing has happened yet but I am enjoying myself.

Dawn is at her lemonade stand when I arrive in the town square. I will later realize that Dawn was an outsider herself, and this status makes her — through holistic and simple empathy — part of the welcoming committee or membrane of the town. Museum volunteers surround her, already staged around the courthouse to welcome visitors for that evening’s sold out show of the To Kill a Mockingbird play the town puts on each spring. Dawn, who has only just met me, makes introductions. They ask if I have heard about the “mystery guest” at lunch today. I have missed Harper Lee’s cameo by two hours. Apparently, the Alabama Writers Symposium — idiot-savant stalker luck, take two: it is the weekend of their meeting — gives an annual Harper Lee Award, this time to Fannie Flagg. Miss Lee was not expected. They tell me that someone stopped by to visit her that morning and told her they were giving the award. She replied, “That sounds nice. Can I have one too?,” and then came along.

The museum volunteers invite me to join the writers’ symposium for an outdoor dinner. The picnic buffet spreads out like a greatest hits album of Southern cooking: fried catfish, hush puppies, which are also fried, fried okra, baked beans, cole slaw, and deviled eggs. Dawn knows I don’t have a ticket for the play and comes over to say that a cast member has returned two. She completely brokers my claiming and paying for one. The ticket comes from “Doc,” the local veterinarian who plays Mr. Cunningham and whom I get to meet later as he and the other characters who form the mob stand in the off-stage area around an old dark green trash can — square and covered with lattice wood. They use it as a bar.

As it turns out, I will not meet Harper Lee, but I will get to go to the church picnic, take a nap on the sofa of the president of the Chamber of Commerce, have a farm lunch and traipse through pastures with Truman Capote’s cousin, and be a bonnet-wearing extra in the play two days later. I will meet people starting properly Aristotelian four-year interdisciplinary programs at the local junior college, programs that sound a lot less like student loan factories than formative learning experiences. I will meet the police detective who plays Boo Radley, both Atticuses, two Scouts, and Crissy, an almost-Belgian existential philosopher who married a local doctor and runs the town’s one coffee shop. Like any life adventure or creative process, this is all steeped in the texture of everyday life — from daily drives past the vast Wal-Mart they call Wally World, to the man who wants to help Dawn get ice for her lemonade stand but quips, “The worst thing about losing the city council election was giving up the key to the ice machine.”

I will come to believe that the really interesting thing about Harper Lee is, moment to moment, what happens next. Harper Lee’s own life sounds fascinating, and I start to fantasize that she is a person I would have liked to be friends with, or even who is a little bit like myself. But to make her a character instead of a person — even inside her own mythology — is not as interesting as the living breathing life-as-art practice of all the townspeople who guard her privacy fiercely, who work as the bank CEO by day and play Atticus by night, and who print me a volunteer nametag even though I can’t give directions to anything but the ladies room, and offer me Styrofoam cups of Malibu Tropical Mojito out of a giant Capri-Sun container as we chat with Miss Stephanie backstage during the play. Crissy the bookstore owner who witnessed Lee’s cameo at lunch said, “Those people have no class, snapping pictures on their cell phones. They post them to Facebook and say they had lunch with Harper Lee.” She says it kindly in playful humor.

Unlike them, I have been given a gift by the town, the gift not of witnessing but of participation. It’s probably the hardest gift you could try to give Harper Lee herself — allowing me to show up and be game. In my own life as a work of art, they are collaborators, navigators, fellow hikers in the weedy terrain of process.

At the time, I was a writer-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. An artist in my program, Daniel Bejar had gone on his own Stalking Harper Lee trip the week before, except that instead of being in small town Alabama looking for a literary giant he was in coastal Mexico looking for Muammar Gaddafi’s son’s safe house. He passed me the adventure baton at our weekly residency meeting the Tuesday before I left.

Daniel had, a couple of years ago, learned that he shared a name with a Canadian indie-rocker, Daniel Bejar. When he realized that they also looked a lot alike, he set out to recreate some of the photos of Bejar the singer that Bejar the artist found online. He was so successful that one of the artist photos ended up in a French music article. The project, The Googlegänger, exists as the Google image search in which the two bearded, curly-haired men pop in and out of uncanny similarity, with the pervasive subtlety and play of Alfred Hitchcock designing a prank.

As if a gift from the art gods, when Daniel the artist had at last completed his final Bejarian shot in Tampa and was preparing to, at long last, cut his hair, he learned that one of Gaddafi’s sons was in political asylum in Niger. He planned to escape under an assumed name, and that name was. . . Daniel Bejar. And, if Daniel the artist shaved his head and grew his beard out, he would look a lot like Gaddafi’s son.

Something happened to Daniel on his trip that didn’t happen to me. He had the crystallizing moment of artistic conversion. He was out in a fishing boat with a man he had hired to take him around. The man asked why he was visiting and Daniel explained that, although Gaddafi’s son was still in Niger in exile, Daniel was there because of one of the safe house locations. The fisherman replied as if a genie, “Do you want to see the house? I know the woman who owns it and she owes me a favor.” Daniel got fifteen minutes to take photos of himself in a tracksuit cleaning the pool — as he imagined Gaddafi’s son on the run. His moment with the fisherman — a moment in which Daniel was expecting nothing but open to something — allowed him to pass through the portal into an uncanny and authentic experience with the house.

I had no such moment with Harper Lee, accidentally bumping into her in the cereal aisle at the Piggly Wiggly. I was stuck squarely in the present moment, in the weeds of artistic process, which is to say, life, and having a good time. My only hope-against-hope moment of goal realization was finding a Chick-fil-A sandwich late in the fourth quarter, in the Atlanta airport on the way back—in the innocent culinary past before enjoying a chicken sandwich became a morally freighted political act. That sandwich was a certain answer to a smaller question, in a past world. The whole adventure was a messy uncertain answer to a much larger and more interesting one. As Laurence the therapist would say, there is no binary of success or failure, only the framework of process. The only way to fail is not to try.

That process of obscurity and sincere attempt may never lead anywhere.  As in the sciences, it is an honorable career to contribute to the body of knowledge by having your entire life’s work telescope down to the phrase, “Nope, no cures for cancer here.”

The state of being an artist — which I mean broadly to be that of people making work in any field — is that you have to trust yourself at exactly that moment of vulnerability where you truly have no idea where you are going and you don’t know if the work is good or not. You have to trust your ability to play through. You have to accept the idea that if you show up as presently as you can with as much attention to being game as you can muster, that good will come of it. Harper Lee, of course, says this best, in the character of Atticus: “[R]eal courage is . . . when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

When I left town, I was sad to leave the people. I was wearing a bracelet Dawn had given me. I would never have said this as I passed the burning car and boarded my flight down there, but, I want to go back.

Next time, Dawn said I could stay with them.


Image courtesy the author