This essay exploring the life lessons I have learned from a research library is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
Life Lessons Gleaned from a Research Library
Something occurred to me as I sifted through what remains of the lives of my literary heroes and heroines who left their papers to the Beinecke Library at Yale that I’d like to share. As I combed through file boxes filled with the letters and journals of Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Thornton Wilder, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edmund Wilson—and through them found treasures from so many other notable writers—I realized how powerfully they can serve as inspirations for those of us who are determined to write. Here are a few gems I gleaned from their examples in this amazing research library:
1) Never stop learning. As R.W.B and Nancy Lewis say about Wharton in the introduction to the book of her letters they edited, she was more than learned, as learning “was for her a vital and shaping presence.” A great way to be a perpetual student is to visit research libraries. Reading what writers before you have said about their struggles will prove that you are not the only one to fear you may never reach your full potential. If you can’t afford to travel, read the published letters of authors—between Miller and Nin, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, George Sand and Gustave Flaubert. Wharton wrote to a highly intelligent cadre of friends, and Hemingway to nearly everyone who was anyone in the literary circles of his time. These are excellent examples of writers sharing the challenges they experienced while cementing their literary legacies.
2) Destroy what you hope will remain private about your life and your work because if you do manage to make a name for yourself someone WILL find all the crumbs. I have seen a number of examples of things writers left out of their memoirs only to have them unearthed by a biographer years after they are gone. Wharton left an embarrassing attempt at an erotic story she could have destroyed. Millay’s sister expressed anger over nude photographs of the poet contained in her papers at Beinecke, an anecdote that Nancy Milford related in her biography of Millay. Seeing the striking photos was scintillating. They prove the poet was fearless in her avant-garde attitudes, which is why she wouldn’t mind that they have survived while her family wished they had been destroyed.
3) Just because you aren’t living during some grand historic event, such as a world war, 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 [our current pandemic is proof we may find ourselves living in a significant time after all.] This is another valuable perspective for journaling. Hemingway might not have been inspired to write A Moveable Feast about his time in Paris from such a far remove if his notebooks from that time hadn’t been discovered in the basement of the Ritz. And Miller’s diaries about his life in the same city are rich in detail, the information he recorded—some pages filled with things as mundane as street names—became the foundation for his groundbreaking books Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn.
4) Don’t allow fear, indecision, a lack of confidence or distraction to waste your time. Everyone whose papers I’ve read had regrets because they felt they had let time slip by for one or more of these 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, 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 memoirs at the most. Wharton is proof that every writer struggles with indecision: her notebooks are filled with instances of her changing her mind—going back and forth as to what to name Newland Archer in The Age of Innocenceand waffling as to whether the protagonist of The House of Mirth hated parties or not.
5) Celebrate men who can bond over the literary, as I saw with Arthur Ficke Davison, Floyd Dell, Hemingway, Miller, and Wilson (and countless others in their boxes of correspondence I didn’t have the time to read, I’m sure). Celebrate women who are woefully board by the superficial, preferring instead opportunities to bond with others who value intelligence above all. Wharton was a perfect case, as was Stein, and their names will live on as great forces who moved literature forward because they filled their lives with intellectual pursuits.
6) Don’t beat up on yourself if you feel you didn’t get a good enough education. Millay didn’t 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, still a poor kid who was the product of a rural American school system. The fact that she would go on to attend Vassar and be the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry proves that where you start is less important than where you end up.
7) 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, many of them expressing regret that they had allowed others to throw them off their game at one time or another.
8) 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 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. Millay relied on Wilson to help her through tough spots. Miller would not have been the writer he was without Anaïs Nin. And Wilder had a dynamic relationship with Stein, their letters filled with advice and encouragement for each other.
9) 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 something, your heart is telling you it is a gift that will sustain you. Hemingway wrote to Stein that she had ruined him for journalism. His pulling away from the chaos of life as a reporter caused him bouts of dire poverty but how fortunate we are that he persevered with fiction. He is proof that making every effort to move toward your dreams keeps sabotage at bay. Just as he spent scattered hours at La Closerie des Lilas nursing a café crème and fleshing out scenes, you can weave the act of writing into your life somehow, even if it’s a ten-minute commitment every day.
10) Lastly, keep a work or process journal to help make a map for where you want to go. We all have trouble figuring out why we are driven to do things the way we do them and mapping the road ahead helps. I saw it in Miller’s Paris diaries and in Davison’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. The papers I’ve read by writers who have recorded their thoughts on a regular basis express themselves more confidently in the final writings they left to the world than those who didn’t.
I’m certain more life lessons will come my way as I visit my favorite research library, walk through cities, and explore countries in the future because being an avid reader and someone determined to travel with intention, there will always be new sensory information to glean, whether it’s with each turn of the page or around the next corner.
Life Lessons from a Research Library © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.