Thursday, June 25, 2009

For What It's Worth File

I realized something the other day when I was going through a pile of old photos from my military days: were I to get hit by a bus tomorrow, no one will probably ever know who these people are. They'll assume they were friends of mine from the Air Force, but they won't have names for the faces, or stories to go with the names.

I know my personal history is only going to be interesting to a few people like my kids or theirs, but it still bugs me. If I don't do something, no one will ever know that the gorgeous doe-eye blonde standing next to me in formation was my roommate Bren, who taught me how to survive on twenty bucks a week, and how to cook an entire meal on a hot plate. Or that the laughing handsome black-haired guy hugging me in one party shot was my good pal Jamie, or why I pretended to be his girlfriend more than once (the whole don't-ask-don't-tell thing didn't really exist in the military back then. They asked, we never told.)

There are some pics I think I'll leave unexplained (like the one of me standing in the purple sand at Big Sur; I'm wearing a very small red dress and a live king snake curled around my neck) but there are more people and places in the pile I'd like to share, at least with my family. These are all snapshots from when I traveled and lived elsewhere, with other people who have moved on and don't know me anymore. I lost touch with Bren and Jamie, so they never knew I made something out of all that scribbling I used to do when we were off duty. To them I was just Snow (and no, I'm not going to explain that nickname, either.)

I can do something about this now -- scan the photos, put together a personal e-book explaining the people and the stories I don't mind sharing -- but it made me realize the same is true of my early fiction, and some of my later stuff, too. I've only been keeping novel notebooks for ten years, and even those don't cover everything. I've got 42 books in print, and at least 600 short stories sitting in my files, but the details of what inspired them and how I felt about them remain mostly in my head.

Fortunately I just finished reading The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain, which was as insightful and entertaining as I'd expected, and also offered a solution to my dilemma. At the back of the book is a section called "Commentary" in which Bourdain looks back at his stories in the book and explains them a bit. Sometimes the explanation is involved; sometimes it's only a few lines, but he provides a little background and often how he feels now about the particular piece. I did something similar when I put together the 2009 reissue of Sink or Swim by prefacing all of the stories in the book with a little background on their origins and the resulting novels they inspired or became.

I don't think a writer should provide too many details about the work behind the work, sometimes it's better that the reader not know everything. Still, if I do drop dead tomorrow there are some things I want to explain myself versus having someone try to guess what I was thinking, or no one ever knowing. So I think I will start a For What It's Worth file, and put together a career commentary of my own. I might also include some things like the details of stories I had planned to tell but had not yet written, or chapters and outlines for books such as Clash and Burn, Ghost Writer and Some Like it Hot that I pitched but was never able to sell.

Do you think every writer (or anyone, for that matter) should leave behind a For What It's Worth file? If so, how detailed do you think it should be? Do you have things you'd like to put in yours? Let us know in comments.

22 comments:

  1. Sure, why not? That way future generations won't have to suffer through teachers telling them what the author - Shakespeare, Chaucer, Donne, et al - really meant to say, even if you disagree.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I do think if you have the time and the energy you should get your two cents in before the biographers make something up...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Lynne, I got to your post via Maria Z. And I'm glad I did. My blog 'Record of a Baffled Spirit' was begun for similar reasons. Everyone seems wired to trace their family trees, but what do you get exactly? Just names - like stamps, placed on an abstract 'tree'.
    But who are these people? Once upon a time family history was passed down 'orally' - tales told before a fire. The powerful have 'history books'.
    Well, I decided my family and friends deserve have much. The story begins with a single mother and a man who was killed in the Boer war a week before it ended, and who never saw my father.

    Anyway, to answer your question - yes. Everyone - so inclined - should leave behind a 'For What It's Worth File'.
    Mike

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well, there's an interesting thought. I like the idea of being able to explain some things versus somebody's guess. In which case, the sooner I start to keep notes, the better, since I have a lot of material to cover and it keeps growing.

    You know everybody's going to want the story behind the snake, though.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I have a different opinion. We live in an age of easy archiving, and that sometimes makes us think that everything needs to be archived. I'm more of a type that lets things go.

    If it were me (which it isn't) I'd put that time and energy into writing more fiction. I keep scrapbooks of my photos which includes lots of journaling, but that's because it's my life. Somehow keeping a "scrapbook" of my fiction seems like imagination heaped upon imagination and just TMI.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Anonymous9:45 AM

    I think everyone should leave behind a for what it's worth file. There are so many things about my dad I'll never know now, because he never saw fit to tell me...or anyone else either. (Except maybe his old army buddies...who probably wouldn't talk about him much other than "yeah he was a good guy...we caused lotta trouble together in the old days")

    My mom is still around, and not long after dad died, we sat and went through her big ole picture box. Wonder of wonders, my daughter looks just like grandma at age 2! Go figure. Learned lotsa other cool things from that talk...dunno how long I'll remember them for though, Might have to get her to write it all down on the backs of the pics at least so I am not confused some day in the future when I am going through that box again.

    I don't think any child can really know their parents as more than that, but the glimpes you get of the person behind the parent, man those are so cool, and so very treasured. (For example, when my dad was in the military, he won a presidential fitness award: Signed by Nixon I do believe! How neat is that! Takes an interesting person to make that award a goal....)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jaye wrote: That way future generations won't have to suffer through teachers telling them what the author - Shakespeare, Chaucer, Donne, et al - really meant to say, even if you disagree.

    I'm still mad at some of the erroneous things teachers tried to drill into my head about literature, like how Hemingway wasn't really a "great" writer because he was born in the twentieth century, his books were made into movies, and his blue-collar prose wasn't festooned with enough adjectives (in her book, plain writing = bad writing. This was the same ditz who told me never to use said as a dialogue tag.)

    It wasn't until later on in life that I bothered to check out her schlock, and discovered that Hemingway was actually born in the nineteenth century, and while his work isn't to everyone's taste, his style had a huge influence on many great American writers like Salinger and Kerouac. As for the movie deals, if I hadn't watched For Whom The Bell Tolls (which won a measly 9 Academy awards including best picture) when I was a kid, I probably never would have read him.

    Idiot teachers.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Cindy wrote: I do think if you have the time and the energy you should get your two cents in before the biographers make something up...

    Yeah, Gary Westfahl already did that in a Brit SF magazine -- made up a bunch of stuff about me and published it while never once interviewing me, meeting me, speaking to me or even e-mailing me.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Mike wrote: The story begins with a single mother and a man who was killed in the Boer war a week before it ended, and who never saw my father.

    Mike, I'm already hooked. You have to write this story.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Charlene wrote: You know everybody's going to want the story behind the snake, though.

    Sorry, but that one goes to the grave with me. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Margaret wrote: I have a different opinion. We live in an age of easy archiving, and that sometimes makes us think that everything needs to be archived. I'm more of a type that lets things go.

    I agree with you as far as archiving everything goes; too much of life is interesting only to the person who lives it or those closest to them, and there is such a thing as TMI. But I think that important stories should be shared, especially if they tie into the events of the time period. For example, while Bren and Jamie and I were together, the Shah of Iran was admitted to our base hospital. I wasn't involved in his care, so I can't offer anything of interest to the historians, but I was there, and I saw and heard things that made me think differently about the Middle East -- the kind of stuff you can't get from a text book, if that makes sense.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Anon wrote: I don't think any child can really know their parents as more than that, but the glimpes you get of the person behind the parent, man those are so cool, and so very treasured.

    Agreed. I had my youngest children very late in life, and they know very little about my younger years -- I'm not one to reminisce. I did write a book for the family about my first year in the military, and another one about being brought up orthodox Catholic during the seventies when censorship, women's rights and abortion issues smashed through church doctrine. But I'm also hesitant to write too much because I don't know what will happen to it after I'm gone. There are some things I would never consent to have published and I would be pissed if someone tried to make money off it when I'm dead. It's tough to know what to do about that.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I think I would like to write an 'I was here', style book, with photograhs. Thanks for the idea :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. I don't think I have written enough to have a 'for what it's worth file'. I'm sure there are some photos that would raise eyebrows, but I'm not sure I want to explain them. Some things are better left to the imagination. *g*

    ReplyDelete
  15. Strangely enough, I made a scrapbooking page the other day that, while not going into my personal details, explains part of how I came to writing.

    I think there should be something charting exactly why my sci fi novel will be published with the dedication "To Lani, for everything".

    ReplyDelete
  16. For what it's worth, picture always speak louder than words. I made a photo montage of important photos, and labeled them with text. I downloaded the montage onto a CD and gave one to each kid. Even if only one CD survives, the photos and faces are still there for the future.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Man, oh, man do I love Bourdain. KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL is battered to bits and it was that way before my teenager read it. I can't wait to pick that up.

    On the file, yes, do it. My reasons are twofold. Only as children get older and have children and live life do they realize the personhood of THIER parents. And you children may later wish they asked questions that they were ignorat of when they were younger.

    My grandparents had such a weird relationship and they weren't given to reminiceing, either, but they ahd lived through the 20's, the depression, my grandfather had owned so many business's and properties and their secrets were legion (nothing illegal, but they just weren't given to talking about things). Nana painted, and I wished she had written about her paintings-I would know her so much more. Papa made stained glass and I wish the same. They travelled all over and they ended their marriage hating eachother but staying married. This is the clincher- thier beginnings were passionate. It was a grand love. I'd tell you but they are so incredible I want to write about it later in life. Anyway, I have so many questions I didn't ask because I was young, and my Mom and Aunt were too involved in their own lives to bother asking. And now we all want answers, and there are none.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I've already done this in a way. My first book is the story of the munchkin's adoption. And I still have the journal I kept during the adoption process. From the beginning I wanted her to know not just about the process but also how we felt during all that time.

    On the other hand, like Jordan, there are a few photos that I plan to leave people wondering about.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I think it's a matter of personal preference. Readers will always be curious about what drives the writer/stories they love, but sometimes knowing what the story is 'about' can spoil the reader's own interpretation of it and change it's meaning for them - I get that a lot with songs, that once the songwriter explains the lyric, the meaning of the song changes from my personal interpretation to the official one. Perhaps, though, it is better to put together a FWIW file - even knowing that it will a be filtered & biased version of events you deem important - than to be put in the appalling position of Philip Larkin, who wanted *all* his personal records destroyed on his death and who had his wishes spectacularly ignored by the executors of his estate.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Yes. Write it all.

    My mom, a writer, died last year after a month in hospice, and though her three writing daughters tried to save all the stories we could first, it still wasn't enough.

    Even if the rest of posterity doesn't care, I really wish I did know the story behind the beat party photo and her Berlin boyfriend Max, or what inspired her to write her first published essay.

    I guarantee that someone would read the whole thing, and would use excellent judgement in determining what should be gifted to the public at large. Trust them to make that decision, and write it all down.

    ReplyDelete
  21. If the writer thinks it worth doing, such a file will certainly have value for family, biographers, and Lit students!

    ReplyDelete
  22. Keita Haruka4:24 PM

    I think it's a great idea. :-) For anyone...not just for writers. we can't always explain why we do things. It would be good to leave it behind. And also...one's own memories fade over time. It would be great to write down these things so we have an answer ready for those tmes when we ask ourselves "WTF was I thinking?" ;-)

    ReplyDelete