The discovery this week of a manuscript by Harper Lee after more than fifty years since To Kill A Mockingbird was published has caused a sensation in the press and the publishing world. As it should. But what I find even more fascinating is the Southern author’s apparent insouciance. In fact, her attitude goes beyond that. She spent all this time, more than half a century, not caring whether this second novel got published at all and is even now hiding from the spotlight.
On one hand, I suppose that is understandable. The author of another American classic, Margaret Mitchell, felt the same way about the reaction to Gone With The Wind. On the other hand, it is more than ironic that thousands of unknown writers and authors would give the left part of a certain feature of their anatomy for even a smidgen of the attention and praise being accorded Lee. And maybe that is telling.
An agent friend of mine reminded me the other day that you can’t write anything of substance if it isn’t “true.” As strange as it may sound, this is especially true of fiction. Fiction comes from the narrative that runs continually in our heads and is acted out, for good or ill, from our hearts. If it is feigned, it will never ring true to readers. What is required to arrive at truth? Courage, humility, insight, failure, resilience, knowing when to stand up, when to sit down, and, perhaps most importantly, when to keep quiet and listen. Obviously, Lee spent a lot of time listening rather than talking.
Which brings me to the vice presidency. It goes like this: the vice presidency as a Constitutional office and leadership position has always fascinated me. It is at the heart of power without having much formal authority. It can be influential without being visible, impressive without being overbearing, vested with history without being burdened by the weight of the office.
Rather than John Nance Garner’s infamous characterization of it as not being worth a “bucket of warm piss,” I believe it has the refinement of gold without the weight. Garner was one of three vice presidents under FDR, and one wonders if he would have lasted had he had a different attitude.
Unlike the presidency, which relies on formal structures, the vice presidency can be as powerful and creative as the person who occupies it. It is limited only by individual talent, drive, and ambition. No matter what you think of his politics, would anyone claim that Dick Cheney was a second-stringer in the Bush administration? Of course, there have been weak vice presidents just as there were weak men who occupied the office. But being Number Two involves a spirituality and sense of self not unlike the ability to write “true fiction.”
There is a spirituality of writing in which layers of illusion are peeled back to reveal an inner truth. That inner truth is where great writing comes from. There is a spirituality of public service such that an office like the vice presidency becomes a true reflection of the inner human being, again, for good or ill. It is up to the individual to make it what it is or can be.
At one point in my life, I studied kung fu for four years and discovered that the real enemy wasn’t my opponent, who would usually be younger and quicker than me–a deadly combination in the ring. The real enemy was me. I had to shut up, focus, drop my shoulders, keep breathing, and reach down into the fear that had been blocking me from being present to myself. And it is only when you are present to yourself that you can be present to others.
That’s where real writing comes from. That’s what a position like the vice presidency can provide, even if the people in it see it as a stepping stone a la Frank Underwood from House of Cards. And that’s what getting whacked in the head will do for you.
By the way, you really do see stars.