“Prosperity and Posterity”
Prosperity and Posterity
Cynthia’s Column January 2010
First of all, more exciting success news from our ranks. I wrote last month about our BBT boy Daniel hitting the jackpot with Dreamworks and a fat book deal. Ten days later our girl Storm Large pitching in N.Y.C. incited her own bidding war between Crown and Simon and Shuster for her memoir, based on her successful one woman show Crazy Enough which was held over for months, selling out every show at Portland Center Stage this year. Simon and Shuster won and Stormy is coming home with her first book deal.
Two bidding wars from publishers in ten days? From one critique group? That has to be a record, right? Even with Chelsea Cain and Chuck Palahniuk in the same group, we rock! In case anyone still has one molecule of doubt that you can hit the big time while living in Oregon, we have proved it is not only possible but recurring! Even in the book world, even during a recession or depression or whatever this is. Cinderellas are alive and well and frigging rampant! Those dusty bottles of champagne kept in the back sticky corners of our fridges in case of victory are getting cracked open, shaken up and showered over a couple of happy writers, I’m just saying. Keep the faith, people.
Okay, wildly changing topics here, I appreciate being able to use this space to ruminate about whatever is banging around in my writer brain on a monthly basis. January is the time of year I do what is usually called Spring Cleaning. Even though it’s too cold to work in the garage itself, I always feel like clearing the decks so I can start a new year with more space to create new stuff and less mess.
For a writer, that generally means paper. It is hard to dig through mountains of paper and figure out what to save. What might I need later? What about much later? What do I want my kids to have to sort through after I’m gone?
I have a confession to make. When I was in my early twenties, my grandmother gave me a box of papers. An old man in her writing group had died and left a cardboard box of his life’s work. Unpublished novels, notes, stories, memories. He had no family and Gram thought maybe I could look at it and see if anything was worth pursuing. I went through some of it. It wasn’t great, and it wasn’t bad. At the time I was using every bit of my own energy to try to launch my own writing career. I kept that box for many years, but eventually it went the way of all paper. I find it hard to even type the sentence, so I guess I should just type it. I threw away an old man’s life’s work. AAAGH!
It is painful to think his life didn’t amount to more than that dusty box of papers. But you know what? It’s not true. First of all, he had the joy of having created all those pages. And in addition to that, he lived his life. He had a life as a writer. That has value, whether or not others get to share in that experience.
So how does this apply to the process at hand? In case one day someone is going through my box (okay boxes, or more accurately boxeseseses) of papers, it would be good not to have the not so good stuff included. In case the grandchild of the future only reads the first few pages, we should be sure not to bury the treasure in too much dirt. So the first drafts, rough drafts, abandoned drafts of unwritten stuff should go. Let us pledge to just keep the gems. This would reduce the volume substantially.
What about those stories of Posthumous Publication? Let’s examine them.
As you may recall if you’ve been reading my column long, I set out in January of 2007 to retrain my screenwriter brain into a playwright’s brain by reading a play every day. By now I’m up in the high 500s and the worst play of them all that I have read is by an author I am actually quite fond of. Jack Kerouac. His “lost” play The Beat Generation is terrible. Unreadable. Unproducable. A big sloppy mess. He tried to get it done when he was alive and successful and no one wanted it then. It should have been left lost. Seriously. Whoever “found” it probably made a few bucks, but it is not doing Jack’s legend any favors.
At the other end of the spectrum, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night was so painful for him to write that it literally killed him. His wife said that he would come out of his study every evening sicker and more frail and ill. He finished the play and locked it in a safe deposit box and died, leaving instructions that it should be destroyed, never published or performed. He was barely cold before his widow gave it to the world, and she was absolutely right. Many consider it to be the best American play of the 20th century, myself included.
A grieving mother pounded on the door of an English professor’s office and begged him to read the unpublished manuscript of her dead son’s novel. He didn’t want to do it, but she was so distraught that he finally agreed, planning to only read a few pages to pacify her. He got hooked and “A Confederacy of Dunces” won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for John Kennedy Toole.
Jane Austin’s unfinished novel Sanditon was finished by “Another Lady” and published. The Austin enthusiasts may not like someone finishing Jane’s work, but they are still glad to have one more story to relish.
Dickens left an unfinished novel as well, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which has been published as it was unfinished. And since it is a mystery, it seems appropriate.
My brother-in-law David Marsh, who died in September, was an unpublished writer. As I helped Wendy sort through papers after his death, she tossed out stacks of mail and papers with hardly a glance, but carefully saved any piece of paper with David’s handwriting on it. “There will never be any more,” she said.
So what do we do now? Separate the wheat from the chaff. The sheep from the goats. (Though I’m not sure why goats are less blessed than sheep. Wool is better than goat cheese?) We should decide now while we are still smart and lucid and able what future generations will be spared and what they will be blessed with (and encumbered by.) And we diligently dig through the paper and keep the treasure and perhaps the longhand originals of work we love, and send the rest of the paper back to the land to nurture new forests, to grow new trees and make more paper. Because we’re not done yet.
We’ve got miles to write before we sleep.