I’ve been accused of having pedestrian tastes when listing Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as one of my favorite books, but it’s a decision I stand by. It’s extremely well written with excellent story telling, indelible characters and meticulous language and focus. It’s truly a classic work.
Here’s a question though, have you ever read any other Harper Lee books?
In case you’re wondering why you haven’t, it’s a trick question as there aren’t any. A recent compelling documentary, Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, has brought to light a fantastic back story about the book. Airline reservationist and author Harper Lee secured a literary agent with some strong short stories and a personal referral and then saw the original manuscript for Mockingbird rejected by 10 publishers before finding an editor in Philadelphia at a publishing firm who saw something real in the work. The editor liked the idea but saw a series of short stories instead of a unified novel in its submitted form. So the two of them went to work crafting a novel.
They proceeded to spend two years editing and hashing out the story. I can only imagine what an exhilarating and agonizing time this must have been for Ms. Lee (she is said to have referred to this period of her life as, “A long and hopeless period of writing the book over and over again.”) but the payoff was a book (and a movie) that became a classic (and a huge financial success).
Harper Lee hit paydirt with Mockingbird but while she never stopped writing, she never published again.
On the literary front, an interesting contrast to Harper Lee can be found in Isaac Asimov. One of the most prolific writers of all time (his Wikipedia page bibliography is approximately 500 books), Azimov was originally a biochemistry professor at Boston University who became a wildly successful and influential author. I don’t know that any of his books have the emotional impact of Mockingbird (and none of them have the civil rights impact that Mockingbird did), but there’s no denying his influence.
In terms of artistic output,
I recommend that you don’t hinge all your efforts on any one big payoff.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of pursuing “perfection” in artistic output (particularly with regards to recording), but in my opinion, you shouldn’t hinge all of your efforts on ONE defining work. This is applicable to any aspect of artistic work, but consider for a moment bands who hole up for years on end recording, editing and mixing their full length “masterpiece”.
In addition to the fact that it’s impossible to ascertain how it will hold up over time (I’m sure that there are a lot of former members of ’80s bands listening to the then “hip” electronic drums on old recordings and wondering what they were thinking.), all indications for the current and future economic model for working musicians involves multiple streams of revenue from multiple releases, sources and performance.
In other words, you’re going to need a lot of output and it all has to be high quality.
Creating a classic work like To Kill A Mockingbird is like hitting the artistic lottery. Instead of getting stuck on any one big project, work consistently hard, keep enough perspective to know when a project is done (the subject of a much longer future post) and keep outputting material.
As a short term example, 3 four song EPs released over the course of the year might ultimately gain you more traction (and visibility) than 1 full length released every 12-14 months but it will most certainly put you in a better spot that one full length released every four or five years.
(In related news, I’m taking my own advice on this and plan on releasing a lot of Scott Collins output that’s been in a holding pen for a while.)
Make everything you do as great as you can
then let it go and move on to the next thing you do.
As always, thanks for reading!