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.