A Writing Life
When I was a young freelance writer in my late twenties, I read voraciously to find my place in the lineage of wordsmiths: books based on correspondence and journals, the complex relationships of the ex-pat writers of Paris1920-30s: Shakespeare and Company, Gertrude and Alice’s Friday afternoon salons; the Algonquin Round Table in New York city, the heady conversations of Oxford and London, and the socialist activists of Minneapolis and St. Paul. As I reached back to the earlier years of the 20th century, I found history and literature, poetry, liberated women, people breaking ground and taboos: biographies of writers, biographies of whole eras and places that held the seeds of the second half of the 20th century. I connected myself and my writing aspirations to a sense of belonging that has steadied me for fifty years.
When I began teaching journal writing, I dove deeper into this lineage of personal papers, both published diaries and trips into the Minnesota Historical Society to discover their treasure trove of the “not famous” early voices of the pioneer and Victorian era. I poured over files of spidery handwriting and vowed to keep records of my own correspondence. If these “ordinary people” were of value to the historical society, maybe the letters between my friends and I would be valued someday too.
When I wrote and published my first book at age thirty-one, my young agent and I twirled down the streets of New York, each of us intoxicated with our step into literary history. We did make history with that book: The Library of Congress had to designate a new category for it because the modern era of journal writing was so new.
“Someday, someone will want to know about this,” she said, “You are a pioneer, keep track of things.” So I did. For years I saved the first draft, the edited pages, the final draft of that book and the next several books assuming some future scholar would want to see how how a book grows from idea to finished product. I saved correspondence, made copies of my letters, filed things by relationship, by years, kept articles I wrote, and those written about my work, copies of speeches given, curricula developed: a body of work. A life in words.
The computer radically changed all this: drafts never really exist anymore the way they used to on a typewriter with scrawled notations in red ink. Correspondence too has changed into texts and emails. Something about that form changed how I write. Gone are the long, thoughtful and heartfelt missives I used to send and receive. Everything is jumbled into an inbox going back to May 2016—maybe when I got this current computer? I often find my email’s constant requests for response exhausting, though I work to bring heart to it, as though it was written by hand. I don’t print much of it, don’t actually have a real desk-drawer filing system for correspondence anymore. And who cares about emails (unless they are Hillary’s).
So in the midst of pandemic isolation I went into the storage room of our little backyard office and began clearing out boxes of files, making piles to be shredded. Correspondence from the era when I thought that mattered; records of the early years of my career—much of it I had forgotten, how hard I worked to hold that place of belonging to lineage that even by the 1980’s was historical.
I threw out the evidence.
I threw out the letters from my best friend in college.
I threw out the letters from a complex mid-twenties love affair.
I threw out the letters between myself and other struggling young writers wishing we had lives as glamorous as those we were copying from an earlier era.
I threw out correspondence organized by year, by book fans, by publishing companies.
I threw out copies of early freelance articles written for regional and national magazines.
And after a while the grief of what I was doing came and sat alongside me. Grief and I smiled sadly at each other—that young brunette who gave her first conference keynote, who sold book after book hoping to break through the mid-list. Grief that time moves only forward and that this kind of record keeping does not matter anymore. There’s not a place for this paper in the digital mania. We don’t live in that kind of world and I don’t foresee that kind of a future.
Oh there’s plenty of paper left from my life: I have been keeping a journal for sixty years and I have every volume of that rambling narrative, handwritten in way over a hundred notebooks tucked in boxes at the back of the closet and spilling out of the lower shelf of my bookcase. I have scrapbooks going back to high school, and my partner and I still spend hours every year in the week between Christmas and New Year’s compiling a record of the year past and our accumulating history of love and relationship. I have digital correspondence files in my computer going back to 2001, but they are nothing like the sheaves I set into the shredding boxes.
I am 74 years old. I have no children: I have no “daughter of the book,” who might be interested in my life/our life/this period of history, or what happened to writing and reading during this time. I am trying to make sorting simpler, for whoever survives me. I am not yet ready to throw out everything, even though I say to my students that the purpose of our private writing is for the clarity and healing it provides by doing it.
And it’s not about me, this companionable grief, it’s about what the world has become. In the world of now we drastically need now to face other issues so that some people can survive and source the phoenix world that will rise from the collapse of this one.
So I offer this paper trail to the shredder. I offer it to recycling. I offer it to re-emergence as new blank pages for unwritten stories, letters, journals, books that will become part of what we leave in the earth for the future to find.