When a Writer Dies: Making Difficult Decisions About the Work Left Behind

Image: a stack of unassembled jigsaw puzzle pieces, topped by a piece with a heart shape painted on it.
Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Today’s post is by editor and media consultant Eric Newton (@EricNewton1).

Nine days before my wife died, she forwarded me a Brevity post, The Death of a Writer, which asked:

Who is going to deal with your literary legacy, and what do you want done?

My wife wrote, “…interesting re what to do…”

She added a lifesaver emoji.

My wife, Mary Ann Hogan, journalist and teacher, died June 13, 2019, her “tango with lymphoma” ended, her life’s literary work unfinished.

Her manuscript explored her relationship with her father, William Hogan, longtime literary editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Though he spent his life writing about books, Bill Hogan never wrote one of his own.

Mary Ann died thinking her book would redeem them both.

Now what?

In The Death of a Writer, Allison K Williams reported what she did as a friend’s literary executor. Read everything, she advised. Get help deciding what needs to be published.

So I read everything. My wife’s private journals, texts, social media, photo captions, drafts, published work, all of it. Not to snoop, as Williams noted, but to separate the beauty from the garbage.

Took a year. Could have taken longer.

Literary executor is one thing; grieving husband is quite another. Her death had transformed me from an experienced editor into a forgetful, fragile widower crying rivers without warning. Every time I learned something new—and even in a 40-year relationship, there were a few surprises—I had to slow down to digest them.

A word of advice. It would have been easier if we had talked more about her personal journals and communication beforehand. If you are a writer, yes, get a literary executor of one type or another. But talk about where the lines should be.

My wife’s friends and writing partners agreed to help me read and judge what to save for the book or elsewhere. Then there would be drafts of the book to react to and fact-check. Her posse was more than willing. Mine, too.

We puzzled over things such as:

  • Should the final chapter be in my voice or hers? Both, we said. I would not pretend to be her. But I would quote her all the time, and we found those quotes.
  • What about the references to mental illness? She talked about panic attacks and flying thoughts, but never named the various diagnoses. What about wine? She talked about how she and her father all were big drinkers, without details. Leave it as she wrote it, we said.
  • What about the title? Circle Way came from the posse. Larger illustrations? That idea came from her writing mentor.
  • Rewrites? Mary Ann had created a lyric essay that jumped around like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, becoming at times a duet with her late father’s journal entries. This mosaic, we said, is best as is.

There’s more of her work to publish, in time, and now that we have a system, it can happen.

Finishing Mary Ann’s manuscript was not as hard as finding the right publisher. Parts of Circle Way had won three writing competitions. Publishers said it was “beautiful.” They also said it was “too literary” for the commercial marketplace.

My promise to my wife—to finish her book—felt shattered.

But then a writer friend suggested hiring Jane Friedman. With her help, I decided I wanted a hybrid publisher, in between traditional publishing and self-publishing. Jane recommended one, as well as an agent, to review the contract.

Lucky me. The publisher, Wonderwell, has been spectacular. Smart ideas for adding more art to the book. A fantastic, innovative design. Solid editing. Ways to get books when supply chains break. Every deadline met, the book will be in stores Feb. 15. Reviews to date are good.

In all, the project involved at least 50 people; our sons and their partners; a dozen writer and editor friends; neighbors; an art center; colleagues who scanned and sorted images; and the many who comforted me whenever I fell apart reading Circle Way aloud.

One friend talked about how Mary Ann’s death was a miracle. She died in the family house, in the arms of her husband, sons and dog. She planned her own memorial. Wrote her own obituary. Talked with everyone. Went over her book one last time.

Now Circle Way is real, her book “about the people who can escape from prisons of their own making, and the people who can’t.”

“You know what,” she said one day with a grin.

“The worst thing about dying is you can’t tell people what to do anymore.”

“Don’t worry,” I smiled. “You’ll find a way.”

And she did.

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