Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What We Leave Behind

When I was a kid, I hoarded paper, especially loose leaf paper. Should I for some reason be able to get paper Ever Again, like if the apocalypse arrived as predicted on Y2K (yeah, that worried me), I'd at least be able to have a stocked supply of paper to write on. To this day I often can't get rid of notebooks. I keep hard copies of my writing even if I have digital copies galore. When I moved several hundred miles a few months ago with only my compact car, I had to part with several notebooks filled with my most recent novel, and it was a wrench to do so, even if I had a bajillion copies elsewhere. Ignoring the fact that this probably indicates some underlying obsessive anxiety issue, which I feel qualified to make fun of, this gives you an idea of what writing has meant to me since I first discovered it.

My first semester of grad school, I took a research methods course with a rather eccentric genius professor who fully believed that research isn't research unless you're looking at primary sources--and he showed us exactly what that meant. He took us to the university archives and pulled out eight or ten boxes of yellow legal pads, coffee-stained pages filled with handwriting. They belonged to a poet-turned-author from University of Arkansas who had passed away fairly recently, leaving an unwritten novel and a half. He thought he was doing us a favor by making is dig through these boxes of legal pads, trying to put together this novel and a half into a publishable manuscript. In a way, I guess he was--not many first-semester grad students have ever gotten to do that, I'm sure. But a fair number of us were creative writers, and rather than inspiring us, it scared us. We did not want to die this way, leaving behind these boxes of randomly-ordered legal pads for someone else to put together.

I was oddly fascinated seeing those pads, not that I would have admitted it at the time. The idea that someone could leave behind what was essentially an impenetrable mess of handwriting was deeply unsettling. No one was ever meant to see these pads, I'm sure--they were pieces of a newborn novel, still bloody and kind of blue and covered in mucus. Just like a newborn baby, a newborn novel is not in any way aesthetically appealing. (Sorry. It's the truth.) It's a miracle of life, sure, but could you really call it pretty?

Before I run the risk of driving this metaphor into the ground, I'll explain what I mean. This guy died before his novel ever made it past infancy. His first novel was not what I would term a success; it was bizarre and not much more accessible than the hand-written pages my classmates and I sorted through, which, in my mind, made it even harder to put it together into any kind of manuscript. To be honest, I felt like I was violating the author's privacy, in a way. He must have had a vision for this novel, and surely this ugly, newborn draft wasn't it. He wanted to raise it into a Big Boy Novel, but it wasn't there yet. But my professor wanted us to revive it and shove it out into the world anyway.

I don't really have an end to this story. I don't know that I learned any lessons from the experience aside from the obvious "Oh God please don't let me die with a bunch of unfinished manuscripts lying in boxes around my house so people can root through them and publish the awful literary skeletons that need to stay in the closet." Maybe it's just that I don't want to remain a mystery like this guy. Sitting in the archives, flipping through 30-year-old handwritten pages, is not a memory I will ever forget, and I think it was a valuable experience, but I never knew the man. I should not have been the one doing this. It should have been friends, family, colleagues. But it sounds like upon his death, he was really a mystery to everyone. He kept his writing hidden, pecked away at it in secret. Even his wife didn't know what was on those legal pads.

I don't want that for myself. I want people to know me and know what I'm doing. I don't want to keep it a secret for a bunch of reluctant grad students to try to unravel after I die, if for no other reason than the idea of being unable to control what people see of my writing (and therefore of me) is really pretty horrifying. I don't know, maybe I keep those filled notebooks around so people can have a more complete image of my writing (and therefore of me). Maybe that's why I've kept a LiveJournal for nine years, and I've never actually gotten rid of the horrifying teenage posts I made back then, despite much temptation. Maybe that's why I keep blogging in various places. I want to be understood.

Doesn't everyone?

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