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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2007-03-30 16:53
Subject: Legacies
Security: Public
Tags:personal, process, writing
I'm sitting here in the coffee house Not Writing a Story (a condition which I assure you will soon be cured), and thinking about an IM chat I had this morning with another writer. We were talking about legacies, what you leave behind when you die. Perhaps not coincidentally, scalzi had an interesting take on this a day or two ago.

I disagree somewhat with the eminent Mr. S. He said:

My work is meant to be read now. If it survives and is enjoyable 20 or 40 years in the future, excellent; I'll be happy to enjoy the royalties and the low-to-moderate notability it provides. But I don't worry about writing for the ages; the ages will decide what they want to read by themselves, and I won't be around to care either way.

Call me egotistical, but I do want to write enduring prose. I don't think that makes me pretentious, or in any real danger of disappearing up my own existenz, but I have an eye on the Long Now.

Here's how I see it...I have a series of footprints in this life. Carbon footprint, information footprint, financial footprint, etc. Virtually all of those will crumble at my death, perhaps walking home from the coffee house this evening, perhaps in a pressurization accident aboard an orbiting hotel shortly after my 113th birthday. I figure I'll leave three things of substance behind me1:

  • the_child
  • The memories of me in the minds of my family and friends
  • My writing

No one else is going to care where I went or what I did or how many press releases I wrote at work or what my cats' names were. Those things are ephemeral, however important they might be to me in the moment.

But my writing might reach beyond me. I mean this both in the current sense, as Scalzi talks about -- entertaining people and helping pay my mortgage -- but also in the sense of posterity. I can't help it, it's how I'm wired in my contemplation of mortality. I don't write for the ages, I write to tell a story. But one of my fond and secret hopes is that some or another of those stories will have staying power, beyond the footprint that I carry with me through life.

Is this egotistical? Probably. But the very act of writing for publication is profoundly egotistical. Every time I write a story or a book, I make the over-the-top assumption that people want to hear what I have to say. The fact that anyone does is a continuing source of amazement and pleasure to me. Frankly, I hope I never lose that private sense of wonder.

Is this foolish? Most likely. So what? It gets me to the keyboard and keeps me there. It makes me happy. And hell, I might be right. Somebody's got to win the lottery, after all.

In the end, I have chosen to be a producer as well as a consumer. If I have a legacy that endures beyond my immediate circle of family and friends, it will be through my acts as that producer. I've been lucky enough to discover that this is deeply important to me, and more to the point discover it at a time in my life when I could do something about it. This is the gift the world has given to me.

Do you hear the wind from the future when you write? What dust lands in the corner of your eye from time to time?

1. Well, three things of substance, plus my credit card bills.
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User: juliabk
Date: 2007-03-31 00:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I, too, have that secret yen. In my case, I'll feel like I've 'arrived' if a story of mine is some day chosen to be in an English text book. Not Norton's or any of the other massive tomes destined to be used as door stops by college students, but something used in junior high or even elementary classrooms. I was that kid who welcomed each new English book like an old friend I just hadn't met yet. Inside were all the wonders of the world and I had usually read every story by the end of the second week of school. It would be so very cool to know that somewhere there was a 10 or 12 year old eagerly stumbling onto something I wrote and inhaling it as fast as they possibly could in the first couple of weeks of September. So, yeah, I get it.
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Danny Adams
User: madwriter
Date: 2007-03-31 01:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Heh--I've thought of something similar. I remember those "Reading" (not English, but reading) books when I was in elementary and junior high, and how they were my first exposure to science fiction (Ray Bradbury in 2nd grade!), and realize that I would much rather appear in one of them than a Norton edition.
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User: tim_pratt
Date: 2007-03-31 00:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think I've weighed in on this issue in your journal before. :)

I'm a selfish hedonist. When I'm dead, I'll be dead, so I won't care if people read my books or use them for cheap insulation. I want my props and readers and riches and so on *now*, while I can enjoy them. I'm not opposed to literary immortality, just indifferent to it. Thousands of books are published each year. Almost all will be forgotten sooner rather than later. I don't see any reason why I'd be different. As Nick Mamatas has often observed, the boxes at Goodwill are filled to overflowing with the forgotten bestsellers of decades past... and I haven't even written a bestseller yet. I won't lose any sleep over whether my work is remembered.

Of course, I'd still love to write a Great Work or two, but mostly because I like it when people tell me I'm great and hand me money. :)
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Danny Adams
User: madwriter
Date: 2007-03-31 01:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
If one or more of my works winds up in the Monastery of the Blessed Leibowitz after the Flame Deluge, I'll be satisfied.
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David Reagan: Graffiti
User: coolmajaka
Date: 2007-03-31 00:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I read the same post, and was especially interested when scalzi talked about the best selling books in 1907. While he makes a good point that the popular books of that age aren't being read anymore, I think the information age will obliterate some of that.

Surely it's just a matter of time (if it doesn't already exist) before every piece of short fiction on the web is detailed by a Wiki/web site. Sure, the author's name might not be remembered, but the "information footprint" we leave behind is different today than it was a century ago.

Heck, we already see it to some extent. I've read quite a few science fiction works from the 40's and 50's, and I don't expect those stories will fade anytime soon.

With 200 stories on your list, I don't think you need to worry about disappearing :)

Now me on the other hand...I need to get cracking. I want to leave a sasquatch-like "info footprint".
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2007-03-31 01:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I also read Scalzi's post, and I do want to leave something behind for the future.

Some of that may be my long-term legacy as a teacher. But that's ephemeral as well, and only lasts as long as the kids you teach last. I'd like to be remembered for more than that. I doubt I'd ever make it to the level of ski-racing history (considering what a wuss I am when I go too fast, plus I took up the practice at too old an age). It'd be nice if Miss Mocha and I could make it to the Olympics in some equestrian discipline or another, but she's too old to make it in the top ranks in reining and too much a Quarter Horse to make it in dressage (and neither of us are that good at jumping over fences), so that's out.

So it's gotta be the writing. And I've gotta get cracking on that as well.
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User: dinogrl
Date: 2007-03-31 01:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I care about your cats' names!

The only constant is change.
Everything is subject to change.
Nothing lasts forever, we are the stuff of stars, and vice versa.

(cliche, but true)
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Shalanna: Black Kitty in Window
User: shalanna
Date: 2007-03-31 01:25 (UTC)
Subject: Write for posterity--it's the right thing to do
Keyword:Black Kitty in Window
I'm wired this way, too, Jay. When I was around five and first found out that the books on my shelves were written by people (and not just BOOM from the sky the way the MATH textbook was), I determined then and there to write down the stories that I told and acted out, in hopes that someday a little girl who lived way after I did would find one of my books in some dusty library . . . yeah, yeah, I have been repeatedly mocked for this. But that's why I originally started writing the stuff down.

My friend who paints scenery for community theater has that opposite POV, the one where all is vanity, says the preacher, and everything's going to dust. She shrugs and says, "It's for the moment." Well, OK. If my stuff is not enjoyed in the moment, then it won't have a chance to last. But look at Miss Emily Dickinson and what happened to her trunkful of poems. And to Vincent Van Gogh, whose paintings were stored up in his brother Theo's attic. And now we enjoy the beauty of "Starry Night" and "Zero at the Bone" every day, as can every generation after us.

I believe we are put here for a purpose. We each have a mission to fulfill in life. I see no problem with allowing that mission, or part of it, to be "leave something behind for someone who will never meet you but will be influenced by you."

The person who is the teacher who posted above has students who have her voice with them. "When you leave this room," intoned my theater instructor, "my voice will go with you. When you are out in the world and scared, my voice will be with you, telling you not to be afraid, that you are not alone. When you are up on that stage, if you need reassurance, my voice is with you . . . listen to me telling you to PROJECT and ENUNCIATE and BREATHE, and then feel the energy and ACT." Sure, you can laugh . . . sure, it's corny . . . but hey, life is corny. I think leaving a legacy behind is part of our destiny. We aren't meant to be disposable and have our works count for nothing, as those who come after us are supposed to be standing on our shoulders so they can go further. As John Updike writes at the end of his short story "Shooting Pigeons," "the same God who designs these beautiful birds with such care only to be discarded won't ruin the beauty of creation by not letting [us] live forever." I paraphrase because I am too lazy to go look that up, but y'know.

Something like that.

You're not egotistical. Ignore your detractors. This is a worthy ambition, and natural to the human condition, I think.

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User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2007-04-02 01:45 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Write for posterity--it's the right thing to do
[[ in hopes that someday a little girl who lived way after I did would find one of my books in some dusty library ]]

Me too!! That's how I found the books I loved, when I needed them. So I want to add some more to that dusty library. -- Which, today, is called Project Gutenberg. Nice unpretentious courier typeface txt files, smelling of old leather and mice.

Well, actually, I'm hoping some grad student will find them, too. :-)
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Jess Nevins: bemused
User: ratmmjess
Date: 2007-03-31 01:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Vanity of vanities, all is vanities. All flesh is grass.

And yet, yes, of course, I think about legacy. If/when my fiction gets published, then I'll think about legacy in that context, but until then I'll content myself by thinking about my legacy as a non-fiction writer. I want to die, fifty, sixty, eighty years from now knowing that the encyclopedias and reference works I've written are still in libraries, still being read and used.

I know all too well what the effective half-life of reference works is--how few of them last. Even fewer than works of fiction. I mean, I've read substantial numbers of books and stories from 1907--but then, I research popular literature of the past--and I know better than most how few of them are remembered now, how hard they are to find now, and how different they are in style from modern works. But for reference works and criticism, even one-of-a-kind works of the sort I flatter myself I write, the lifespan is even shorter.

But, damn, do I want to be one of the few who do last.

So you may be egotistical in looking at the Long Now, but you're not alone by any means.
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kit: writing
User: mizkit
Date: 2007-03-31 08:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I mostly don't really care about the Ages. I write contemporary genre fiction and I hope it entertains people in the moment, and I'd like to be able to continue entertaining people down through the course of my lifetime. But most of what I write I don't expect to *last*, and that doesn't bother me.

That said, I have a YA fantasy novel that I believe has the potential to be a classic, and I want that beyond pretty much anything else I want out of my writing career. I don't care, by and large, about awards and honors and all of that, but by God I want the Newberry for that book.

(...what, ego, me? nah.)
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Elizabeth Coleman
User: criada
Date: 2007-03-31 17:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I try not to think about writing Prose That Lasts. Because
1) I'm not even published yet, so I should probably write Prose That Sells.
2) related to #1, I have had a tendency to dream about the future, and it prevented me from focusing on the present and actually getting things done. Now, I set goals, but I don't stare too hard at them.

I suppose what it comes down to is that my writing priorities are first, what is true to my heart, next, what sells, and finally, what lasts. I'd like to think that some day, I can work with the faith that anything I do will automatically satisfy the first two requirements, so I can focus on the last. But I know that people are so fickle, there's not much I can do to make my work a Classic. It's all up to the society I leave it to.

But I don't think wanting to write classics is egotistical. Saying you DO write classics is egotistical. :-)
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User: jetse
Date: 2007-03-31 19:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Allow me to play Devil's advocate.

First: I do agree with the wish to write enduring prose (and not saying I can, but that I want to try). However, I'm really wondering at the way you're going at that.

There are two things that *seem* contradictory to me:

1) You want to write prose for the ages;

2) You write with a speed like the devil chasing you.

OK: I'm overstating things, but not by much. And I do realise that there has been an extensive discussion about the speed of someone's writing, and it's relation to the quality of someone's writing. Personally, I think it depends strongly on the writer, but maybe a writer should try, even if only once, to change tack.

To give a few examples from the top of my head: Shakespeare was prolific, and Harlan Ellison was quite prolific in his best years. On the other hand, James Joyce was not prolific, and Christopher Priest isn't.

Now, very roughly speaking, both Shakespeare and Ellison wrote fiction (OK, plays in Shakespeare's case) that struck a chord with people: they manage to evoke a lot of emotional resonance. Joyce and Priest, on the other hand, require a lot of intellectual investment to get to the deeper layers of meaning they left behind in their works.

Cut to Jay Lake: I think you're a superb stylist. I can recognise a Jay Lake story from miles away (e.g. in Nemonymous 4, where we shared a ToC, I knew the opener was from your hand, without a doubt). What I personally miss, quite often -- remember I'm the devil's advocate -- is the *depth* in your short stories.

Admittedly, I haven't read your novels. So I don't know about those, and feel free to recommend me one.

Now, what the editorial part of me (and the reader part, keeping in mind that I like a challenge) loves to see is a short story that succeeds in both: style with substance, sensawunda with literary depth. A story you can't forget.

A few personal examples: Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life". Harlan Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs". Greg Egan's "Learning to Be Me" and "Wang's Carpets". James Tiptree Jr.s "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death".

I think you came close with "The American Dead": a razor sharp observation, mixing insight with the right tone (admittedly, I have a stake in that, with the story being published in Interzone).

The devil's advocate here (don't take this too seriously) says that it seems you're taking the scattershot approach to immortality: shoot tons of stuff against the wall of eternity, and hope some of it sticks.

Maybe, just maybe, if only to try out a different approach, you could take your time for one single story? Let it ripen and develop, improve it and add depth to it over time? This seems to run contrary to your nature, but why not try it with one single story you feel strongly about?

Like me, your day job pays your bills. So, financially speaking, you don't really need to maintain a highly prolific output. I realise you just can't help yourself, and it certainly hasn't hurt your writing career.

Still, like a good cheese, like a good wine, or like a superb single malt: maybe you could let one story ripen over the years?

(And now you can all hang the devil's advocate...;-)
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User: martyn44
Date: 2007-03-31 21:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What is a writer but a god in their created universe? How much more permanent do you want to be?
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User: juliabk
Date: 2007-04-02 21:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What is a god if it has no worshipers?
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User: martyn44
Date: 2007-04-02 21:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
According to Terry Pratchett, a small god. According to Neil Gaiman, an American god. Think I'm going to argue with those two? I'm re-reading Good Omens and I want a sequel!
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User: juliabk
Date: 2007-04-02 21:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Sounds like just being god of your own universe isn't sufficient. ;-)
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User: martyn44
Date: 2007-04-02 21:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You know what it's like, the grass is always greener on the other side of the event horizon. I'd say this is getting solipsistic, but I'm not sure I can spell it.
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User: juliabk
Date: 2007-04-02 21:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
An event horizon in the hand is better than two in someone else's basement. At least that's what I always say.

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January 2014
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