‘There is a strange Charm in the Thoughts of a good Legacy,’ wrote Cervantes. And, in truth, what writer has not thought (perhaps peevishly) of writing their own obituary, thus making clear what value they wish to leave?
As I approach 65, I’ve been thinking about what nearly four decades of published work has given me, my family and my community. I am a widely published poet, fiction and non-fiction writer who is neither rich nor famous. My writing life has been satisfying and frustrating in equal measure. But recent family deaths have prompted me to think of my own legacy. I’ve already donated my body to medical science. I filled in a few simple forms which I left with my GP, allowing the medical college to fetch my corpse, use it for about five years, cremate it, and then return the ashes to my children. Simple. However, my small one room flat (in a retirement home) has no more space for the tottering mountains of files and the paper detritus of a writer’s life stuffed into shoeboxes.
I might easily not have taken any action: if my published poetry and fiction didn’t attract many readers, what chance would my unpublished work have? Yet I wanted my unpublished work to remain accessible. My father died at 41, my mother at 48, and my elder brother at 61. Besides, life is too short to pester agents and publishers further; realistically, I would rather enjoy what’s left than strive for further publication. In my published short story ‘Gaps in My CV’, the main character says: ‘I have no future and won’t go there unless I have to. The past is safer. We know exactly where we stand with the past.’ That may be so, but as writers with plenty of unfinished and unpublished work cluttering up our lives, we worry about the burden put on our survivors to sift through it all.
Back in the 1940s my parents used to listen to Fibber McGee and Molly, an early marital sitcom broadcast on NBC. One of the show’s running gags had Fibber telling the long-suffering Molly that he’ll just get what he needs from his notorious cupboard. Radio sound effects then captured the clanging, banging and pain of the junk tumbling down on Fibber’s head. As ageing writers, perhaps we too ‘gotta get that closet cleaned out one of these days.’ I decided that time was now.
My own legacy is tangible as paper, but its worth is far less obvious. I once wrote, pompously, that I wrote ‘in order to cheat death for a little while.’ But who is cheating whom? Writers can’t know what will last. The eccentric 18th century Irish politician and orator Sir Boyle Roche once mused, ‘why should we put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what did posterity ever do for us?’ But then posterity immortalised Sir Boyle’s bon mots, so perhaps we writers ought to trust posterity more?
As a British author, your published work will probably already be held in all six Legal Deposit Libraries: the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Cambridge University Library, the British Library in London and Trinity College, Dublin. But the deposit libraries are under no obligation to take a writer’s unpublished manuscripts, which in any case some writers prefer to gift more meaningfully to their home-town library or archive, alma mater, or regional archives in the village, town or city where they lived and worked. In my case, the choice was easy.
I wanted my work to live alongside that of the living writers who influenced me, and to share space with my writing friends and contemporaries. I had done many hours of research in the National Library of Scotland, so I thought my orphaned works might be happiest there. I emailed the library, which is based in Edinburgh, explaining that I had notebooks, handwritten manuscripts and lots of unpublished work. By attachment, I sent them a longer biography and a bibliography of my published books.
I imagined the worst kind of professional rejection. ‘Due to recent renovation, we regret that the archive does not have sufficient room at this time…’. Or: ‘We are only able to house works of literary merit; we thus regret…’ and so on.
The actual reply was enthusiastic and practical. The library, it turned out, didn’t have some of my published work, including a Hungarian translation of one of my poetry collections. It seems the Legal Deposit Libraries are especially keen on expanding their translation holdings, since if your work was translated abroad it is unlikely the Deposit Libraries will have received their legal copy.
I also sent a list of unpublished work or works-in-progress. This work, probably only ever read by me, reveals an unpublished sports writer and aspiring writer of westerns.
A day was set. The archivist would drive down from Edinburgh to go through my writer’s life with me in our crowded flat. I put everything in folders and boxes then waited, nervously. She thought four hours should do it.
After a cup of tea and a famous brand of Scottish teacake, we got down to business. At no time was I given an impression that the National Library was only interested in celebrity, and she knew far more about the future value of my work than I did. Having previously seen many archival requests for other writers over the years, from foreign scholars, postgraduate students and family members, she confidently declared that it is virtually impossible for anyone to know how an author’s legacy might be used or studied in the future. It depended entirely on the vagaries of reputation and scholarship.
To my relief there was a contract: called the ‘Donor Agreement’, it protects the access and use of my legacy. There was an inventory of my donations. Care is taken with ‘Copyright and other Intellectual Property Rights’, ‘Personal Data and Freedom of Information’, ‘Care, Maintenance and Return of Donated Items’, ‘Law and Jurisdiction’ and ‘Data Protection’.
We discussed the delicacy of some material. To deter identity fraud it is important not to turn over anything that might compromise your privacy, or that of others. The contract was concise and clear and not in the least daunting.
I had supposed my legacy would be negligible. The archivist convinced me otherwise. She reiterated that the value of any writer’s written legacy is not for them to decide. The message is: let your professional archivist help.
I was both flattered and touched by what went into the archivist’s neatly labelled boxes and files — all made of special acid-free cardboard that would last millennia. A future scholar or family member could now explore that legacy in safe and civilised surroundings. Here’s what they took of mine:
Manuscript drafts of poetry and prose 1990–2008
Typescript short stories with related correspondence
Typescript of unpublished novels
Typescript of unpublished non-fiction work
Script, publicity, diary, tour organisation of a dramatic musical work based on the life of Thomas the Rhymer
Papers relating to several writing residencies
Letters to and from other writers
Self published works
Press cuttings (scrapbook)
Ephemera of Wolfwind, my own local band
Two USB drives containing unpublished westerns and other fiction; short stories, poems and songs: all unpublished
The archivist worked alone all afternoon in the common room of the retirement home in which my flat is located. She returned my amateurish pile of poly pockets and faded folders. My legacy looked impressive in its new archival wallets and folders. The early winter sun was receding over the football pitch. Hopping blackbirds sought cover from the approaching night. I helped the archivist carry my bequest, which barely filled the rear seat of her small hired car. She hoped to have time for a quick stop for flowers to take to a local cemetery where her mother was buried.
As I waved off my oeuvre, I knew that most of it would remain unpublished. And yet, just as my less-than-perfect body will be used by medical students for study, dissection and perhaps even medical book illustration, my own equally corporeal body of flawed work might also be picked over. Perhaps it will be resurrected one day in a study, PhD thesis or, with a bit of luck, a posthumously published western or sports anthology.
While the medical school will return my ashes to my next of kin, just a few streets away in the ancient city of Edinburgh my creative ‘soul’ will live on in a much different form. As the archivist drove away I realised there was an unexpected emotional power in that small legacy. Perhaps that was what Cervantes meant by ‘a strange Charm’.