Not long ago, I spoke at a book club where the woman introducing me mentioned that I had recently sold my literary papers to the Michigan State University Libraries. Someone in the club asked, "Won't you be losing your identity when they take your papers away?"
It was a good question, because Michigan State was going to cart off more than 30 years of my writing life in over ninety boxes. Letting go of the past is something I've worked on in therapy over the years, and, for me, it has often meant dealing with something that had gone wrong in my career.
As a writer, the past almost always includes what might have been, so no matter how good things look to an outsider, there's a shadow story that the public doesn't know.
These boxes held the dreams and realities of 31 years of publishing and easily another five or more before that, in college and graduate school learning my craft. Though I would eventually publish 19 books and hundreds of stories, essays and reviews, the boxes were filled with many false starts.
There were dozens of stories that didn't get finished or published, aborted novels and short story collections, un-produced plays, un-filmed screenplays, notes for stories and books that never took shape at all. And then the files and files of rejections from editors and agents.
I had held on to everything, good and bad. That included handwritten and typed manuscripts; writing diaries; travel/book tour journals; correspondence with other authors; domestic and foreign tour memorabilia; fan mail; corrected galley proofs; drafts and clippings of the hundreds of reviews I've published; programs from all the conferences I've attended with copies of my talks and info about the panels I appeared on; advertisements for my books and readings; notes and talking points for talks and keynotes I've given; copies of material for workshops and classes I've taught; CDs from my radio show interviews with authors like Salman Rushdie and Erica Jong.
There were also research materials in various media for every book I'd written or tried to write, including books I consulted for many of my projects; my interviews in print and on tape, CD and DVD; editorial correspondence; reviews of my books from around the world; articles, conference papers and book chapters written about my work; copies of all my published works in all languages; unpublished manuscripts; unpublished poetry; books inscribed to me from other authors; original cover art and posters; and "ephemera" including gifts from fans.
As for the precious prizes, framed great reviews, and framed book covers that used to decorate my study -- I stripped the walls and sent all that off, too, without any hesitation. I went five years between publishing my first and second short story. The drought left its mark, and there were other bad times where every door seemed closed to me. Good news hanging on the wall had helped to remind me that even if my career might seem like it was floundering at times, that wasn't how it had always been or would be. But with a home for my papers, none of that seemed necessary now.
Once I had agreed in principle to a deal with Michigan State, it took me six months on and off, working with my spouse, to get them ready. We inventoried the boxes that were already filled, and emptied out all the file cabinets in the house into more boxes. We carefully labeled and recorded everything, adding explanatory notes when necessary. The full inventory was over 70 pages long.
The process made me relive my entire career until that point, the highs and lows. It reminded me of people I'd met and lost touch with, of places I'd forgotten I'd visited, and paths I'd never completely explored. It was a journey I had never expected to take, a retrospective that surprised me, made me laugh at times, and sometimes moved me to the point of tears.
It was a very long goodbye.
So do I feel I've lost my identity? Not at all. Something about boxing everything that was un-boxed and inventorying the entire collection helped me separate myself from my writing past and look toward the future. Selling my papers has been a giant spring cleaning, an act of liberation.
The freeing up of physical space has also freed my mind. I don't find myself dwelling much any more on the things that didn't happen for me in my writing life, the wrong turns, the many career disappointments, some of them profound, one or two almost crippling. The pressure to succeed, to keep striving, to publish more and more and more has been lifted.
My legacy -- whatever it is -- has been secured.
A different version of this blog appeared in Bibliobuffet.com