The Personal Lives and Literary Legacies of Writers: Christine Walde in Conversation with Heather Dean

Heather Dean

UVic Librarian and Malahat Poetry Board member Christine Walde talks with Heather Dean, Associate Director of Special Collections at the University of Victoria Libraries, about the construction and importance of literary archives, and her role as moderator for Literary Afterlives: Exploring the Meaning and Values of Writers and Archives, one of three interactive panel discussions at this year's literary symposium, WordsThaw.

This panel will take place Saturday, March 19, 10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m., at the University of Victoria.

When it comes to archives, how are writers' archives both similar and different from other bodies of information, and what is so compelling about writers' archives? How do they help us to understand the writers' process?

The archives of writers are like the personal archives of many people: they contain artifacts of our everyday lives from diaries and letters to legal and financial records. I think one of the things that make writers’ archives especially compelling is the public fascination with the personal lives of authors and their creative process. Writers’ archives, like the archives of other creatives, are fascinating because it can be difficult to untangle the personal from the professional. In order to understand a piece of writing it can be useful to look not only at drafts of writing but also at correspondence and diaries and the larger context in which an author was working and who their intellectual circle was. 

How do writers create archives, and is there a proper way for writers to construct them? And what does this mean when it comes to entrusting a writer's personal papers to an institution?

Archives generally grow organically without an author really starting out to create one. It can vary greatly from person to person, with some authors intentionally saving their drafts, letters, diaries, and so on initially for their personal reflection, and perhaps later realizing that this material may have a value beyond their personal use. Other archives might grow from benign neglect with an author forgetting or not wanting to bother with throwing things out. With personal computing authors will increasingly have to make more effort if they want continued access to their drafts of writings and other documents. As an archivist I can’t really tell a writer to create or not create an archive; but I feel I can have a conversation with a writer when it comes to thinking about donating or selling an archive to a cultural heritage institution. The benefits of entrusting an institution with your archive are multifold and include ensuring the long-term preservation of an archive and the possibility of continued interest in, and scholarship on, one’s work.

What about access? Once a writer has donated their archives to an institution, do they have the right to be forgotten? And how does privacy and access to this information affect the reception and interpretation of a writer's archive?

Archivists regularly negotiate a balance of ensuring privacy while providing access. It is essential an author feels comfortable with the level of access the public has to their archive regardless of whether that access is right now or in the future. Privacy can be complex in that it’s not just the privacy of a single author but of all the people whose voices can be found in their archive. In my experience scholars are generally respectful and don’t just muck about in archives looking for secrets. I think more often than not a writer’s archive enriches their legacy and provides a foundation for meaningful and continued scholarship of their work. Think of the writing of Emily Dickinson and how little she published in her lifetime. Her archive opens up a whole world that would not be accessible otherwise.

So what can a writer's archive tell us that can't be discovered through their writing?

Context. A writers’ archive can provide us with incredible insight into an author and their creative process. How was a poem or novel generated? What was the inspiration? How did it transform over the period of creation? What feedback and criticism did an author receive and from whom (such as other writers, editors, publishers, friends, and so on) and how did this change the piece? With an author’s final work it can be hard to imagine how a piece came to be and that it could have ever been something other than what it is. It can be incredibly illuminating and jarring when you dig into an archive and learn that your favourite piece of writing was profoundly different than what you know it as.

Is there a proper procedure or protocol for how a writer can donate or sell their print and digital archives?

The Group for Literary Archives and Manuscripts has produced an excellent document providing writers with guidance on this topic: Authors and Their Papers: A Guidance Sheet for Authors and Writers. This document is a good starting point for an author thinking about donating or selling their archive as it touches on a number of issues from the practical to more ethical/theoretical that are worth considering when engaging in conversation with cultural heritage professionals. I would encourage writers to take a proactive approach and consider contacting archivists and librarians and beginning a dialogue.    

What will WordsThaw attendees learn from the "Literary Afterlives" session?

What the heck are archives anyways? The session will have the perspective of both an author (Jan Zwicky) and scholars (Lisa Goddard and Nicholas Bradley) who will provide insight into the value of archives and what they can teach us. The bigger conversation will be about the concept of creativity and where ideas come from; about memory and its relationship to fact and fiction; and about literary legacies and cultural heritage.


Christine Walde

Christine Walde

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