What’s Off-Limits When I Die

Who gets to decide what of yours gets published after you’re gone?

Who says that your journals, your letters, your doodles in the margins get to be publicly shared posthumously?

I assume the obvious: Your next of kin. Your estate’s executor.

But I wonder — those of us who read the words of the dead without their explicit permission (The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, The Diary of Anne Frank, Kafka’s The Trial) — do we care whether or not the author wanted the materials published and read? (Kafka apparently vehemently did not. Tough noogies for him.)

Sure, it’s fun to discover that Tolkien had a “semi-secret” talent for sketching. And Jim Morrison wrote psychadelic poetry.

Fun for us.

But for them?

I’m not so sure.

Of course, one could argue that they’re … um… dead. That would be a pretty good argument for why it doesn’t really, truly matter.

But why, then, do we respect the dead in other, superstitious ways? We wear black, hold our breath, cover our mirrors. Shouldn’t we think twice before reading their private journals?

Presumably their material was published in the name of art by someone who had something to gain from the publication: money, fame.

But does this mean we have to read it?

I think about this a lot as I go through my cardboard boxes.

At the end of the day, I save stuff for me. I might think I am saving it for my kids, but I’m really saving it for me to share with my kids. Not for them to discover on their own with no historical reference. No filter. No explanation.

And I wonder, what would I be okay with them sharing after I’m gone?

Anything marked “FINAL DRAFT,” I’d be good with, I guess. All files tagged “SUBMITTED_2_2013” or any such combination of publication name + date, I’d be good with.

But the other stuff? My journals? My notes to self? My letters? My teenage angst poser poetry?

I don’t know if I want those aired out in public by anyone else but me.

I might change my mind when I’m famous. (I’ll let you know.) But I doubt it.

What about you? What are your thoughts about publishing rough work or private writings posthumously?

15 thoughts on “What’s Off-Limits When I Die”

  1. This is a hard question to answer, because I don’t know if I would want things published that I didn’t think were any good. I supposed everyone finds writing good and bad so every piece has an audience, and some merit, but things may also not be published for a reason. I really think there is no right answer here, though, but only conversation.


  2. Oddly enough, I think this has some tie-in to the previous post about letting go. We all want control over our lives, even in death. I’ve got some personal writing of my own. My venting. My wishing. My warm up exercises. My doodles. My utter garbage I wouldn’t want seeing the light of day. That’s all well and good until the day I die. I may not be given the opportunity to have a family or even a loving spouse that might wish to honor my work a la John Kennedy Toole. I may just have the random city employee in a jumpsuit haul it all to the dump. I came to peace with that lack of control.


    1. You’re so right that’s this is a part of my letting go journey. I’m impressed you’ve come to peace with that! I’m still struggling with my ego; but knowing is half way to letting go.


  3. I think there is a part of us yearning to be heard – get it all off our chest. To let down all our guards and just be ourselves, unafraid of scrutiny. I experimented the other day with writing a song by laying down the chords and then recording what came out of my mouth with only enough censorship so that it made some kind of sense – grammatically (almost) at the least! I ended up being much more truthful, not guilding my sentiments at all and that was incredibly liberating. And it’s got a killer hook! When I get my blog up and running properly, I will be posting the recording. If I don’t really want anyone else to know my ‘stuff’ then I won’t articulate it. Anyway, anyhow!


    1. Looking forward to hearing your recording! I know you’re so right about letting down our guards for our true creative gifts to shine. A professor of mine recently advised me to write as if no one will read what I am writing. (Because I often let that get in the way … my worry about what people will think of me or what I’ve written.) When I let down my guard, my best writing shows up


  4. A poet I once knew said that writing is one of the most life-affirming things on earth. Leaving something of yours behind is an investment in immortality. In death, she’d want everyone to see the fruits of her labour. But that’s her opinion.

    I second your opinion that certain works (like teenage angst poser poetry—I have 300 volumes of those) should be off-limits. The fool-proof way to ensure non-disclosure would be to never digitalize the work and don’t tell others that it exists. Or destroy it yourself. There’s a certain power (and bravery) in killing your darlings.


    1. Yes. You’re right. About the bravery required to kill your darlings. Killing off little bits of your self. I think for me, the more I embrace letting go, I see the benefits being less about power, and more about peace. The desire for power (control, really) is what keeps me hanging on to all those little bits of my Self. If I really want the ease I say I want, I’ll let go more and more.


  5. I had this same thought when I was a teenager about my diaries. It wasn’t abouy death though, it was more about how much trouble I would be in if my mom read them that’s when I started to write in code so I could remember, but no one else. Or, you can do what jd salinger did. Apparently he was very prepared with his writing before he died


  6. I think it would be a grievious invasion of someone’s privacy once their deep, secret, personal thoughts are published and put out there as public domain, but the positive thing about doing all that is that people are more touched, more inspired and even more changed when they are able to intimately relate with others. I think that’s why all those diaries and journals of the dead have been able to make such huge impacts in many people’s lives. They exposed the souls, weaknesses and most honest feelings about those who are no longer with us. I was particularly changed by reading “The Diary Of Anne Frank”. I have never been so moved my entire life.


    1. Such a good point! We’re so afraid — most of us — to expose our weaknesses and our honest feelings (both good and bad) while alive. It’s a gift of the dead; to allow us to acknowledge the universality of those feelings when we read their private writings after they are gone. When I think about it that way, I am not so terrified of revealing my inner most feelings to the world after I’m gone. I am afraid, though, of unintentionally hurting people.


      1. Hurting people is an honest concern, but I truly think touching all those people is a “greater good” and may be worth the risk. Those who may get hurt should also look within themselves and try to understand that you couldn’t have written something against them out of nowhere, you obviously had a reason; and surely, they also know they don’t always think of you as a perfect angel . They have their reservations too that they’d rather keep well hidden. Right?


  7. this is such an interesting post and something i’ve thought about before, too! i have loads of journals in boxes under my bed…and they’re exactly what you said. waiting to be shared with my kids BY ME, when I so choose. if i suddenly died, i don’t think i’d want all of my journals aired out! i don’t care much about the quality of that writing, but the content is what I might like to keep private. that’s a tough situation to think through!


    1. I think most of what my kids would find is silliness. Evidence of my immaturity. Nothing TOO lurid. Thinking about this, I could probably live with them reading the journals and the letters. And rest assured they wouldn’t be quality enough for print! 🙂


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