The Death of a Writer

June 4, 2019 § 27 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.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching Instagram: Improve Your Craft, Grow Your Readership as a live webinar for Hidden Timber Press on June 15th. Sign up here!

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