Legacy: it’s something many authors think about. After all, we each hope that our work will continue to resonate with readers for years to come, even once we’re gone.
Donating your writing papers to a university archive is a way of helping to preserve your legacy as a storyteller. I’m fortunate enough that my papers are part of the Horror Studies Collection at the University of Pittsburgh, which means that my drafts and notes are currently housed in the same place as the work of George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Linda D. Addison, Daniel Kraus, and more. Sometimes, it still seems too good to be true.
I’m often asked about the process of donating my papers to an archive, so today, I’m going to share some advice about what I’ve learned along the way. But first, an important note: as always, your mileage may vary, meaning that what has worked for me as well as the specifics of my experience might not be the same from person to person. Simply consider this a bit of a crash course in how to create and house your own writing archive.
Keep (and Organize) Your Drafts
As a writer, you probably know a thing or two about rewrites. Some (or most) of your drafts might be digital, but if you’re anything like me, you at least occasionally edit using printed copies of your work. These documents are among the most important for archives, because they help to show the progression of your work.
The bulk of my own papers are very simply my printed-out drafts with notes and edits made directly on the page. So if you aren’t keeping those papers already, then please find a good place to store them ASAP. And it doesn’t have to be fancy. I use a plastic bin in our closet. Just somewhere that the papers won’t be exposed to water, sunlight, or anything else that can damage them.
Put Dates on Everything
This is perhaps the biggest adjustment to my writing process, and even though it’s a small change, it’s a crucial one. I never used to date any of my drafts, except perhaps in the file name itself (and sometimes not even then). Now when I print out a copy of a story to edit, I always jot down the date in the upper corner. Why? Because archives are all about keeping track of the order of an author’s papers. It makes a big difference whether it’s a first draft or the final one right before something is submitted for publication.
So as you’re printing out your work, be sure to take that extra moment to put the date somewhere you’ll see it later. It will make your life (and the life of your archivist) easier in the long run.
Consider Keeping Memorabilia
Do you have old convention souvenir books lying around? Postcards or flyers from writing events? Anything related directly to your writing career might very well be of interest to an archive when it comes time to donate your work. When in doubt, you can hold onto the item and eventually ask your archivist if the item is something worth donating. They’ll usually be more than happy to give you an idea of what kinds of ephemera their archive collects.
Find a Good Home for Your Papers
So here’s perhaps the most crucial part. You’ll want to find the right location for your writing papers. There are a number of different ways that might happen. Sometimes, you might be like me and have an invitation to donate your papers. That obviously makes it much easier to decide what to do, especially when it’s a fantastic place like the Horror Studies Collection. But it’s not entirely uncommon for writers to contact their own alma maters once they’re at an advanced stage of their writing careers to see if their university would be interested in housing their papers.
When do you know it’s the perfect time to contact a university? While again mileage may vary, it’s probably best to be a published author for a number of years, usually at least a decade or more. You don’t want to ask too early and then lose out on the opportunity because it’s just too soon. You should also have specific accomplishments that you can cite in a cover letter when contacting your university. Have you won or been nominated for several awards? Has your work been optioned for film or television? Does your body of work have some connection to the university or the city/state where it’s located? Any of these details can help the university see a reason why it might be worthwhile to accept the donation of your writing papers.
Read the Fine Print
So you’ve got a place interested in housing your writing papers. Congratulations! Your work, however, is not quite done yet. Every university archive has their own policies, and the chances are you’ll sign a contract when you donate your papers. Most of the information is fairly straightforward: you’ll be asked to provide some basic information about you as well as the details of precisely what you’ll be donating. But there’s usually a bit more in the fine print than that. For example, there was a section where I opted to only donate the papers, not the copyright to the work. This is crucial if you plan to continue publishing, as most authors are. Those are the kinds of details you’ll need to look at.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Any good archivist will be more than happy to answer any of your inquiries as you navigate the process, or they’ll be glad to refer you to the proper contact person to help you if they don’t know the answer. The most important part is that you’re satisfied with the terms of your donation before you sign anything official. Because once you’ve made the donation, the papers and other items belong to the university in perpetuity.
Don’t Stress Too Much about the Process
Three years before the Horror Studies Collection asked me to donate my papers, I’d actually thrown away a couple stacks of old drafts, thinking they were just taking up space. While those papers of course could have gone into the archive, there’s no reason to worry about it now. Likewise, if you haven’t dated everything (or anything), that’s all right too.
Do your best to design a system that works for you as you move forward with the process of cataloging your personal archive, but don’t make it into another stressful part of your life. This should be a fun process. After all, you’re preserving your horror legacy for future generations; what is honestly cooler than that?