How to Craft a Personal Legacy

This week was my birthday week, and, thanks to my husband, I took several days off. This past weekend we went to Taos, where I ate good food, watched the birds, and played my ukulele. (I am really easy to please.)

Since I was in my early twenties, I have used my birthdays as a way to measure progress and take stock of what I have, what I have done, and what I want to do. I still remember taking cold winter runs back in Missouri thinking that it would be fantastic if I could become a full-time author by the time I was twenty-eight.

I have so much to be grateful for this year — namely that I achieved this goal years early and that I have had the privilege to write fiction, earn a living, and maintain my independence since 2015.

This morning as I sat down to write longhand (as I do every morning), I got to thinking about the legacy of a writer. By legacy, I do not mean money or material goods. I am also not talking about an author’s brand, which can change and bend at the will of the market.

I am speaking of reputation — a writer’s hallmark, philosophy, ideas, and the impressions she leaves behind. A writer’s legacy is not just the narratives and themes she explores during her lifetime; it is also the story of the writer herself — her character, conduct, and her adventures.

I kept picturing famous writers I know of who gained a reputation for being brilliant and ________. You could fill in the blank with words like prolific, reclusive, ahead of her time, adventurous, promiscuous, paranoid, bad-tempered, mercurial, or tormented.

Writers like Hemingway and Dylan Thomas, while they gave us great work, are known almost as much for their alcoholism as their writing. Emily Dickinson earned a reputation as a recluse who squirreled away roughly 1,800 poems that were discovered upon her death.

Edgar Allen Poe, so often associated with the characters in his poems and stories, garnered a reputation for being dark, disturbed, and introverted. In an introduction to one of Poe’s collections, Wilbur S. Scott writes about the various Poes portrayed in obituaries and what we know from his writing and friends.

In describing how Poe behaved after the death of his wife Virginia, (whom Poe married when she was 13 to his 27), Scott writes, “He continued to write for magazines, to exasperate his colleagues, to run into debt, and to be temporarily saved by friends.”

And later, “His letters reveal him to have been an insecure man who preferred a romantic image of himself to what he must have considered as truth too dull to present accurately.”

Sad, right? Poe died in Baltimore after being drugged, plied with drink, and sent into the voting booth as a repeater. Afterward, he was left to the weather and possibly beaten. He was taken to the hospital and died four days later.

Many writers like Hemingway, Thomas, and Poe have achieved a place in history despite their personal shortcomings. Legacy, I’ve decided, is not just about how and what we write but also how we live.

Writers that we study today probably never gave much thought to how they would be remembered. But if they had, would that have influenced their work or their lives?

It occurred to me that as contemporary writers, we have the advantage of seeing how the greats lived, what they wrote, and how they were remembered. Most of us have also been to plenty of funerals and listened to loved ones of the deceased speak about their lives.

This just goes to show that a legacy is formed whether we ever become well-known or not. We do not have to be famous or even published to begin thinking about the legacy we wish to leave behind, and then to begin crafting that legacy with intention and care.

For me, my fiction persona is different from my nonfiction persona, but they share similar traits that I’d like to be part of my literary legacy. I want to be remembered as an author who was thoughtful, analytical, feisty yet approachable, and, at times, countercultural.

Both in my fiction and nonfiction, I urge my audience to question societal norms and the direction of progress. I value freedom, creativity, self-expression, and independence over convenience, convention, conformity, and dependence.

But this gets more complicated when you start to consider the personal impressions you wish to leave behind. When my friends and family remember me, I’d rather they think of someone who was warm, funny, smart, expressive, and dependable. So how do we balance these sets of values?

The first and most important step is to write them down. Write them down, and take the time to consider each one. You may find yourself writing down a value or trait automatically just because you feel that you should.

For instance, I first wrote that I wanted people to remember that I was hardworking. Hard work was something both my parents really valued, and I can honestly say that I inherited their work ethic. But I really don’t care if people think that I’m hardworking! My husband frequently says that I am, but this is a compliment that I freely brush off. I don’t find it particularly flattering or compelling. It’s just part of who I am. But if someone says that I’m funny or smart or easy to be around, it lights me up. I’m walking on air! This is a good litmus test to determine what sort of legacy you truly crave.

Once you’ve identified the values that matter to you, I want you to consider whether your current habits and patterns really reflect your values. For instance, I put that I value freedom, but my choices to buy a new car and build a house in the country (creating debt) do not really support this value. I also have two dogs that I take everywhere, which restricts my air travel. I value self-expression, but I usually avoid weighing in on politics via social media because I find this arena ugly and unproductive. I want to be thought of as dependable, but I skipped out on a friend’s bachelorette party because the plane ticket was too expensive.

What bad habits are undermining your values? Is it drinking? Gossiping? Canceling plans? For me, shyness is a big one. I tend to be overly self-conscious, both online and in person. I also like to have nice things (like my Subaru), which diminishes my financial freedom.

You don’t necessarily have to change all these things (at least not all at once), but I think it’s important to cultivate self-awareness and to be able to look at your life choices through an objective lens. This may help you make different choices in the future or shape the topics that you write about. (Remember, you have years to craft your personal legacy, but you can never start too soon.)

This week has allowed me to illuminate some areas where I feel that I’m living up to my legacy and other areas where I could do better. I’ve decided that it’s important to write well, but what we say with our personal conduct is just as important as what we say with our writing.

Photo by Laura Fuhrman

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