In an earlier post I talked about clearing out old mss that I was pretty sure wouldn't be published. I asked readers to let me know what they did with their mss that were moldering in a drawer or on a disk. One replied that she was saving them for posterity. This was one comment I hadn't thought of.
Like any other writer, I love opening the box from the publisher that contains the first copies of my new
When the Houghton Library of Harvard University announced that it was acquiring John Updike's papers soon after his death, I thought, of course. He's a famous writer, perhaps the most important American writer of his generation, and a graduate of Harvard University (Class of 54). Learning how he composed and shaped his fiction and nonfiction would certainly be interesting to young writers and literary scholars. But my papers? Would a library actually want them? I don't think so, but I'm beginning to wonder if my perspective is the exception.
Over the years I have read the juvenilia of writers I have admired, but you only have to do this once, with one writer, to glean the important lesson. The early writings will show both promise and ineptness, and often throw the reader back in her chair as she marvels at how far the writer had to travel to reach his or her current heights. My reactions to early, youthful writings of later prominent voices are similar to my feelings about first novels. I might enjoy them, but I privately hope that the writer improves with experience. I have a number of favorite mystery writers who did just that.
Perhaps my lack of interest in leaving work behind for others to study and evaluate comes from an innate desire to be known for the best I can do, and not for my failures. Is it ego or vanity? Possibly one or the other, or both. Is it fear of having my old notes and unpublished mss leading to eternal humiliation? Probably. Is it laziness in not wanting to spend time organizing this old, rejected pile of material in some system that can facilitate the transfer of ownership to someone else? Definitely. Laziness for sure plays a role.
Perhaps the lack of interest in posterity has to do with a lack of ambition. I don't want to be famous. I don't want to give up privacy and freedom to move through my life, in and out of stores or restaurants, without being noticed. I don't want strangers becoming my "best new friend." One of the staff at the post office (yes, the one I wrote about recently) stood at the counter when John Updike walked in to mail something. She had waited on him before, but this time she was so flustered that she forgot several steps in the process and had to redo everything after he left. Embarrassing. For her, of course. And for a shy man, like John Updike, even more so.
I will never face these problems, and I don't want to. I have what I regard as a perfect life, and after I'm gone, my departure will make room for someone else. If anyone wants to know something about me after I'm gone, read the books.