The Death of a Writer

June 4, 2019 § 30 Comments

I’ve been reading my dearest friend’s journals. Spiral-bound notebooks, cloth-covered hardbacks, loose-leaf paper in three-ring binders. Sorting out teenage angst and adult story notes, false starts and full pages. Some of the words are casual, some inspiring, some sad.

I’m also digging through her computer. Looking at old story outlines and half-drafts of essays. Working on breaking into her phone.

I’m not snooping.

I’m her executor.

My friend wasn’t especially organized, but two other close friends and I found what we could after her death, tried to piece together what was worth keeping, what would be a beautiful memory and what was garbage. It was good for the three of us to read her old journals. We threw away the teenage angst and kept some of her adult musings. We pulled some of her unfinished writing from her old laptop and put it in a Dropbox so we could all look at it and feel a little less bereft.

Poking and prying and talking about her. My friend might not have wanted this. She might have been very angry that we’re reading her private thoughts, looking at rough drafts not ready for prime time. But she didn’t tell us, so we get to make that choice for her.

Stieg Larsson, writer of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, died without a will. His partner of 24 years, Eva Gabrielsson, was left in the cold. Larsson’s estranged father and his brother got everything. The estate is still in court 15 years later. It’s not only the millions of dollars: Gabrielsson contends Larsson’s work isn’t being presented to the world the way the late author wanted. But he didn’t write those wishes down.

Many “big deal” authors have literary trusts, where chosen trustees work with the author during their lifetime to establish how their work should be treated, and set up procedures to continue selling rights and allowing research after their death.

Most of us don’t need an elaborate trust to guard our posthumous literary interests. But as someone left behind, sorting through grief and papers while guessing what your dead person wanted sucks.

Who is going to deal with your literary legacy, and what do you want done?

  • Journals. Do you want them read? Burned? Photocopied and passed around the family? Placed in an archive?
  • Family photos and genealogical research for your memoir. Are they labeled, or at least in a labeled folder or envelope? Will anyone else know who these people are? Does anyone want to store physical papers?
  • Story notes. Manuscripts. Half-finished drafts. Should anyone try to finish them? Should anyone even read them?
  • Published work. Who do you want to have the copyrights? What do you want them to do with them? Do you want any royalty income to go to charity? Should the same person get the rights and the money?
  • Not technically literary, but treasured mementos from previous generations have the same problem as writing notes and unpublished work. Those left behind don’t know how to value them. If you have knickknacks, jewelry, scrapbooks, have you explained their meaning to your heirs? (If you haven’t, are they really worth keeping? Because someone has to agonize over your grandparents’ 50th anniversary album while standing over a garbage can. Just sayin’.)
  • Do you want your social media wiped or memorialized? Have you listed a legacy contact on Facebook? Any online-only friends who should be notified of your death?
  • What passwords and account numbers will someone need to wrap up your affairs?
  • Speaking of affairs, what should be deleted before your child or significant other finds it? The essay you didn’t publish to avoid hurting feelings? That chapter you decided was too personal to share? Who should go through your devices and do that?

You have the right to privacy after death. But unless you’re specific about what’s private, someone else will make those choices for you. Even if you don’t formally appoint a literary executor, write your wishes down. Use this simple writer’s will form from Neil Gaiman as a guide. Here’s more information about literary estate planning.

Share your feelings with whoever will likely clean out your stuff (and one other person in case you’re both hit by the same bus). If you want your devices wiped, say so. If you want your electronics explored, share the passwords with a trusted friend who doesn’t have physical access to your computer. If you don’t have a friend you trust that much, split it up: one friend gets the first half of each password and another friend gets the second half.

I’m still digging through my friend’s stuff. At the funeral, a woman I’d never met gave me a key to my friend’s safety-deposit box I hadn’t known existed. I’m waiting for paperwork from AOL to take over her email so I can get into her phone. Maybe there’s a letter or important bank information on her new laptop, maybe I’m supposed to figure it out like a puzzle. Maybe it would have been better to reformat and donate the electronics to needy children.

I don’t know. She didn’t tell me. So curiosity wins.

I hope I’m doing what’s right. But it is comforting to read her words. As it happens, I like one of her story outlines a lot, and maybe I’ll turn it into a book.

That, I know for sure she’d like. Because we talked about it.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 30 Responses to The Death of a Writer

  • bone&silver says:

    Brilliant. I can’t believe millions of Americans don’t have Wills- what are people thinking!?

  • THIS. Is excellent. First of all, so sorry for your loss. Second, thank you for writing about such an important and difficult topic. I am happy that your curiosity made this happen. It’s not just the sex-toys or compromising photos we need to think about! 😉 I am printing this one and adding it to my “to-do” list.

  • stacyeholden says:

    What a heart wrenching and yet necessary read! I have been trying, though I now see a need to prioritize this task a bit more, to go through old boxes filled with my dissertation materials and field notes and all the mementos from different eras of my life til now. I even want to throw out those books that I’ll never read again, but once were key. I will keep only the bare minimum. I do not want to imagine a stranger tossing that box of research that represents such hard work–and truly wonderful memories as I engaged in it. I want to be brave enough to do it myself. This post is truly a call to action. That said, I am absolutely convinced that your friend would love that you are getting posthumous comfort from her writing.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      It is surprisingly lovely to take boxes of papers, appreciate the moments of discovery and knowledge that led to stockpiling paper, and then release that work and trust that it’s still in the universe if you need it again ❤

  • Thank you, Allison. This is a tender and valuable reminder of mortality and care for what we leave behind.

    • My condolences on the loss of your friend. I am sorry for your pain. I have reviewed the belongings of people I cared for. It is particularly painful because you miss the person and also hope so much to do what they would want. Often, even for someone you were most close to, we can only guess.

  • ascreamin says:

    An important issue. I have many old journals lying around. In a will my husband and I did many moons ago , I left the journals to my sister, for lack of a better choice. She will probably kill me for doing that. But I’ll already be dead so….(but in all seriousness, I probably should update that will. Thanks for the reminder and I’m sorry for the loss of your friend).

    • Allison K Williams says:

      You’re welcome and thank you – and maybe the journals will be a comfort for her ❤

  • clpauwels says:

    Reblogged this on CL Pauwels at Large and commented:
    Such an important topic, and one I think of often since losing a dear writing friend just over a year ago. What will be come of all her files and manuscripts? Will her non-writing family treasure them as I – or other fellow writers – would?

    Difficult discussions…

  • katehopper says:

    I’m sorry for your loss, Allison. Thanks for this important post and the reminder.

  • Oh wow, I’m sorry for both your loss and for these situations that must feel confounding and saddening and at times frustrating. Good luck with it all. I think there might be a couple books in all this, sounds like. It says a lot about writers that we spend so much time writing and planning creatively put not personally in a purposeful way. And to write your friend’s book–or the idea she had–wow, a wonderful way to honor her memory.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thank you – I’m grateful to have two wonderful friends helping through the whole process! And I love your distinction between planning our work vs planning what will happen to our work.

  • Sally Ashton says:

    So important and necessary. Even for non-Writers. As someone facing this very task (for the 4th time), write it down. Note to Self: Write it down! Thanks for sharing your experience and these resources. A real service to those who will be grieving.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thank you! And yes, write it down! Even if it’s not legally binding, it’s so helpful for heirs to have specific guidance.

  • Raney Simmon says:

    This is definitely something as a writer I’ve honestly never thought about.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Yep. I just kind of assume my papers live in an alternate dimension where no one will ever have to deal with them…but it’s so tough to look at someone else’s labors of love and decide to let them go!

  • jofitz42 says:

    Thank you for your suggestions. I facilitate a memoir class for senior citizens at a local college. I encourage them to organize their work so that what they have worked so hard on is not lost in the shuffle. I’ve volunteered to do it for them. We all need to be sure that our executor knows where to find our passwords.

  • Sadia Raza says:

    Such an important topic to be discussed. Ad you discussed so beautifully. Well done
    Btw don’t forget to follow me 😊

  • […] admit that I initially put off reading Allison K. Williams’s “The Death of a Writer,” in which Williams shares her thoughts about serving as a beloved friend’s literary executor. […]

  • marianbeaman says:

    I have turned my aunt’s journals and diaries into blog posts. Excerpts from some of my own journals have been useful in writing my memoir.

    My advice: Write in pen or use computer. Pencil scratchings fade with time, even with magnification.

  • Bill Peschel says:

    Whenever I see this topic come up, I like to pass along Neil Gaiman’s advice about how you can set up your will so your family can use your works after you’re gone. I did this with our lawyer, and he needed to make only a few small changes to meet state law.

  • […] days before my wife died, she forwarded me a Brevity post, The Death of a Writer, which […]

  • […] before she passed away, Mary Ann sent Eric a blog post, Death of a Writer. It was written by Allison K Williams, who had inherited her friend’s literary rights upon her […]

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