“You’re not throwing away your notebooks, are you?” my friend exclaimed.
Well, yes I was, and a lot of ’em. Not enough to meet the clutter threshold acceptable for allowing company into my basement storeroom that I blithely refer to as my office, but getting there.
“Don’t do it!” he shot back. “You need to keep that stuff.”
It’s work product, he went on to lecture. It has value, could I not see? All of it -- notebooks, filled legal pads, rough drafts, scraps. Four decades in the journalism trade, and there sat the proof -- preserved in raw unfiltered purity.
“Scholars are going to be interested in that,” he declared.
Hmmm, I wondered aloud. So there might be some money in it, then?
“They won’t want to pay for it. But they’ll want to see it, trust me,” he assured.
And I could only ponder how fitting such a posthumous reception might be, considering, as most of my compadres in the freelance “business” well know, how brisk a market there is for donated writing while one is alive. All sorts of publications (EXCEPT this one) expect writers to welcome payment not in money but in copies of the publication. Just as they would compensate their plumber with framed photographs of the new toilet he installed.
The writer’s consolation, I now remind myself, is that the plumber builds his reputation on leaving minimal mess behind, whereas the paper trail euphemistically known as “literary work product” actually cries out for preservation only in the case of an Ernie Pyle or a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. –- or in the unhinged mind of yours truly or his know-it-all friend.
Scholars -- i.e., graduate students shackled to involuntary servitude -- are likely plowing through cardboard boxes and shopping bags at this very moment, dating and alphabetizing legal pads with discarded drafts, letters to agents and lovers, restaurant napkins anointed with unfinished sonnets and spilled hoisin sauce.
Could the need to keep busy be acute enough on somebody’s part to lend value -- yes, value -- to my forgotten byproducts of police beat, press conferences and parochial polemics?
Relativism surely has overtaken us if academia has come to such a pass. I could only pity the laborer who had to dig through my notes for his lousy master’s degree, not to mention the Egyptologist who dared to try and decipher them.
I will attest that there’s interesting stuff there, mostly reflected glow from witnessed events and interviewed celebrities and scoundrels. Problem is, I can’t tell you if my notes from the 2008 Obama rally, the 1992 Mike Tyson trial or the 1987 papal visit are in those boxes, folders, tote bags or file cabinet drawers, not without putting in more time than I care to invest without so much as a graduate assistantship stipend.
The late famed Indy vagabond poet Etheridge Knight once bragged that he could get paid by a university for sending along a gas bill. Having read through -- and taken notes on -- his papers in the Butler University archives, complete with letters from ex-lovers complaining about bad sex or missing money, I must say it’s good to be dead if you’re an important writer with a story-rich life.
Then there’s the beloved fiction writer Raymond Carver, whose letters in Indiana University’s Lilly Library have fueled a literary world brouhaha over the degree of rewriting his iconic short stories underwent at the hands of the legendary Svengalian editor Gordon Lish. Ah, editors.
I might have mentioned to my solicitous friend that I, too, have letters, in addition to my valuable notes. The personal mail makes for pretty slim pickings, given that so much of it has simply been lost since the days when we communicated on paper as a matter of routine.
The work correspondence from readers, also predominantly pre-Internet, runs to two prevailing types: those damning me to Hell with the rest of the communist idiots, and those congratulating me for sharing their political views or for having written something nice about them.
I do have a handwritten note from Mitch Daniels, graciously taking issue with some criticism I lodged against him back when he was a mere aide to various politicians and not yet a big shot. Re-reading it provides a measure of the progress each of us has made since.
That, I can tell my friend, is true value. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to haul out my recycling bin.