One year after I began my teaching career at Charleston Catholic High School I was asked to teach a course in creative writing to rising seniors. As a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry I was delighted to accept the challenge and spent the early part of the summer pondering the perfect segue that would also become the touchstone of the course.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” had always been and continues to be my favorite novel, and the movie version was shown every year to my students, most of whom had never seen the film. As a writer, whenever I found myself paralyzed in a piece, I simply had to only open the book to any page, close my eyes, point to a spot on the printed page, open my eyes, and read. That simple exercise always provided the fuel needed to regenerate my work.
Shortly after the school year ended, I wrote a letter to Harper Lee asking for advice to share with my upcoming, young creative writing students. I realized at that time that the reclusive author might not answer my letter. I use the word might, because I wanted to keep the fantasy alive, the possibility alive that she would indeed write a note to me, a teacher.
Several months passed, and I continued to hold tight to my dream of holding in my hands a letter from Harper Lee. I hadn’t mentioned that I had written to her to anyone for fear that they might be too realistic and point out to me that the chances of hearing from Harper Lee were about as likely to happen as winning the lottery. But, one of the perks of being a new teacher is the unquestioning belief in sheer idealism (and, if you’re very, very lucky it never leaves you).
And, as incredulous as it might seem, it happened. On the morning of September 18, 1995, as I stood in the downtown post office with many other Charlestonians collecting their daily mail, I pulled from my box a small, white business envelope with my name and address typed in bold black ink as if generated from a manual typewriter a letter from Harper Lee. At first, I thought it a clever marketing tool — typing a person’s address so that it appeared that it had been done so with a real typewriter, not a computer-generated mass mailing.
As I opened the sealed flap, still thinking it contained a retail advertisement, I unfolded the crisp, white paper and read:
Dear Ms. Jacobs:
A belated nevertheless sincere thank-you for your kind letter of last June. I stay months behind in dealing with my mail.
I’m not much good at giving advice to the young, but you might wish to pass this thought along to your students:
If you want to write, WRITE. Writing is a craft you can only master by doing. Don’t “fall in love” with what you write to the extent that you cannot edit it. You must be to a great degree objective about your work. Good luck and work hard!
Her signature was drawn with the heavy ink of a fountain pen. I ran my fingers onto each letter, closing my eyes and thinking of her and the indelible effect she had had on my students through her writing and would continue to have on them as they penned their own stories. And for several years, the students that followed that first class of creative writers read and re-read the framed letter and simple advice given to them from the writer of one of America’s most endearing works that hung prominently on the wall as you entered my classroom.
Kathleen M. Jacobs lives in Charleston.