A few months ago, I packed up six drafts of my recently published novel The Village of Bones and sent them to Smith College along with thirty-eight boxes of other materials that span my writing career. I have been saving these materials for well over forty years; and after fifteen years of inventive procrastination, I finally gotten around to archiving them. The result is that I now have a clean basement (who knew the floor was made of concrete?) and the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library in Northampton, Massachusetts has my Literary Papers.
What are “Literary Papers?” Well, “The Mary Mackey Papers,” as Smith calls them, include among other things: copies of all the foreign and English language editions of my novels and collections of poetry; multiple handwritten drafts of my works; copies of every magazine with my written work; fliers for most of the readings and lectures I’ve done; photographs of me from age two to the present; literary correspondence from famous writers like Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Marge Piercy, and less well known writers who should be better known; posters almost too big to mail, and chapbooks so small that if you gasped, you might inhale them.
Smith even asked me to send them my juvenilia, a term for the things I wrote when I was a child; so I have had the fun of finding my first novel (a science fiction piece written when I was nine about a little girl who outwits alien robots) and my first collection of poetry (handwritten on lined paper when I was eleven).
As you can see, “archiving” your literary papers means much more than simply placing copies of your books in a library. A university archive is like a safe or a time capsule. Smith is going to put every scrap of my materials in a specially constructed part of the Special Collections Library where they will be preserved in a climate-controlled environment and protected from insects and mold, not to mention floods, fires, mudslides, and earthquakes. Thus, The Mary Mackey Papers will be available to the general public, students, and scholars of the future for all eternity, or at least until climate change makes the human race extinct.
I want to encourage every woman writer reading this to think about archiving her literary papers. (Actually every male writer should too, but that’s another issue.) Please don’t think: “There’s no use my trying to find a place to archive my work. I’m not important enough. No one will want my papers.” Almost every woman I’ve told about the archiving process has said this, including famous poets and best-selling novelists. On the other hand, when I mention archiving to male writers they tend to say: “That’s a great idea. Of course my work should be preserved for posterity.” Or sometimes: “I don’t think anyone will want my papers, but I’ll give it a try. All they can do is say ‘no.’”
The men are right. If you contact an institution about archiving your papers, the worst they can say is: “No, we can’t take them.” But if you don’t try, your work may end up in a dumpster. You need to archive your papers now, while you are alive and can made all the important decisions. Don’t leave archiving your papers to your heirs or they may dump your old love letters in with the rest, and you may end up being known to future generations as “Snookums.”
So how do you go about archiving your papers? Well, that depends. If you are younger, you probably don’t have much. In fact, everything you have may be in digital form, so you need to begin printing some of it out. Not all of it, but a few drafts, important emails, etc. You should also start saving fliers from the readings you do. And don’t throw away those poems you wrote when you were nine. Keats kept his early poems. Keep yours.
If you are over fifty (or already very well-known), you need to make a general list of what you have and estimate how much room it takes up. Then you need to find out which libraries, universities, or museums already collect the kinds of things you have.
Next, you need to send a brief email to places you think might be interested in archiving your papers. Introduce yourself, describe the highlights of your collection and its significance, attach a very brief bio, and ask them if they are interested in seeing more. My initial email was three paragraphs, sent out with the subject line “Interested in a literary collection?”
Archiving your papers is particularly important right now. Literary correspondences are occurring in emails; drafts of novels and poems are being stored in the Cloud; news of readings are coming via MailChimp. According to the archivists I have spoken to, the life of digital material is about five years. Then bit rot sets in, and the files are no longer readable.
In other words, the entire literary life of the twenty-first century is being written on water. Let’s see that it’s written in stone.
If you do archive your papers, that is to say if you place them in a climate-controlled environment in a university or museum archive, I have a present for you: I have created A Guide To Women Writers’ Archives on my website. Send me your information, and I will put you up there with Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, and Maya Angelou.
Mary Mackey is a bestselling author who has written seven volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of fourteen novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. For more information about Mary’s books, including her recently published novel, The Village of Bones, please visit her website.
This article was originally posted on the Women’s National Book Association, San Francisco Chapter, website. To see it in its original context CLICK HERE.