I’m on my way back to Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University tomorrow and it occurred to me that it would be a good time to share with you what I’ve learned so far from delving into the papers of some heavyweight writers at some of the country’s finest libraries. I’ve reserved boxes of Thornton Wilder’s papers for this trip after spending an entire day a few weeks ago combing through Gertrude Stein’s correspondence, notes and clippings.
What Libraries Might Teach Us
The remarkable men and women who’ve left literary legacies I would like to emulate are teaching me about more than writing as I sift through their lives; they are illuminating some remarkable lessons about living. This doesn’t mean I see them as pinnacles of psychological health—quite a few of them were some of the most tortured people who’ve ever lived.
But I recognized important takeaways for writers, in particular—ideas I gleaned through processing the struggles I came across again and again:
Look to the writers who have come before you to help you make a map; we all have trouble figuring out why we are driven to do things the way we do them. I saw it in Henry Miller’s Paris diaries and in Arthur Davison Ficke’s summation of all of his writings, which he annotated with editorial notes in an effort to suggest to biographers how he wanted his story to be told. Whether they took his advice or not, it helped him to see the full picture of his writerly tale. Because he had journaled throughout his life, he had a foundation and a direction for his thoughts.
Destroy what you hope will remain private about your life and your work because someone WILL find it if you don’t. I have plenty of examples of things writers left out of their memoirs from my time at Beinecke, which are filed away awaiting the next biographer to delve into their papers. Edna St Vincent Millay’s sister expressed anger over nude photographs of Millay contained in the poet’s papers at Beinecke when Nancy Milford, my favorite of Millay’s biographers, interviewed her. They are striking photos that prove Millay was fearless in her avant-garde attitudes. Another chilling example published in The New Yorker regarding Willa Cather’s letters came to light in 2013, supporting my caveat as well as any anecdote could.
Every Period in History Matters: Libraries Teach Us That!
Just because you aren’t participating in some historic event, such as a world war (which the Lost Generation writers lived through), it doesn’t mean someone in the future won’t want to study your life as an example of the period in history in which you are living so give them a fully realized view of it—in your own words.
Don’t allow fear, a lack of confidence or distraction to waste your time. Everyone whose papers I’ve been reading had regrets because they felt they had let time slip by for myriad reasons (and these were no slackers—they were serious about putting words on the page day-in and day-out!). If all you can manage is recording snippets of thoughts in a designated writer’s notebook you keep with you, do it—you will be strengthening your writing muscle at the very least and will have material to use when you are ready to craft your literary legacy at the most. Edith Wharton’s notebooks, as the above image shows, have myriad instances of her changing her mind.
Celebrate men who can bond over the literary, as I saw with Davison, Floyd Dell, Ernest Hemingway and Edmund Wilson (and countless others in their boxes of correspondence I didn’t have the time to read).
Don’t beat up on yourself if you feel you didn’t get a good enough education. Millay didn’t even know who William Blake was until Davison mentioned his poetry to her during their earliest correspondence. Of course she was a tween at the time and she would go on to attend the highly regarded college Vassar. But early on, she was the product of a rural American school system. Remember, she would be the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry so where you start is less important than where you end up.
In terms of relationships: none of us, not even those who achieve fame, get off Scott-free when it comes to love and loss. Yes, some of us suffer more than others, but everyone suffers so don’t let flourishing, floundering or failing relationships stop your creative flow [easier said than done, I know, but it’s worth a reminder!]. The examples of sabotage glared from the scribblings of even the most intelligent writers whose lives I’ve surveyed so far.
Try to find writers who have already paved the ground you are hoping to cover, but ones who support you with an open heart and without jealousy or competitiveness. I saw this positive camaraderie between Edith Wharton and Henry James when I went through her archives—they had a brilliant give-and-take that I believe made them both better writers. Edna St. Vincent Millay relied on Edmund Wilson to help her through tough spots quite often.
Lastly, find your passion, and fight tooth and nail for it. No matter how “set” you believe your life is in this moment in time, if you are driven to write or to paint or to design something, your heart is telling you it is a gift that will sustain you. Do yourself a favor: don’t waste a minute of time resisting the urge. You can weave the act into your life somehow, even if it’s a ten-minute commitment every day.
I highly recommend the discipline of visiting research libraries, especially for young writers who are struggling to find their voices. I wish I’d had someone say these things to me when I was fumbling along so painfully for so many years, though I’m not certain I would have had the maturity to know what to do with the advice. Let me know if this diary entry resonated with you, will you?
The Diary of an Improvateur and What Libraries Might Teach Us © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by