The artist Georgia O’Keeffe and her close friend Anita Pollitzer wrote a lot of letters back and forth to one another during their decades-long friendship. They met in college, and after work and life geographically separated them, they continued the friendship via sitting at a desk and writing. (Fancier desks than the one above, but I just liked this photo of an old fashioned writing desk with inkwell and pen).
They wrote about all the things girlfriends now text or email each other about except they had to use stamps and the post office. Because everything was on paper, actual paper my goodness, the letters are saved. No delete button. And because one of the women became a world-renowned artist, the correspondence between two friends about everything from romances to idle gossip to career goals is now kept in the archives of none other than Yale. Not too shabby. At the time most of the letters were written, they were just two women who had common interests and a shared respect for one another. Girlfriends.
I thought of all the letters I wrote back and forth to my girlfriends when I left Illinois in 1977. I threw them all away and because I’m not famous I don’t think any fancy university will be pining for them. Still, I wish I still had all those youthful letters if only to remember the girl I once was. Not saying I don’t like email or texting, but now it’s hard to imagine someone taking the time to write me a letter on paper, get a stamp, address an envelope and mail it to me. So much time invested when now we can just hit a few buttons. I keep any letters someone sends me now. There are none but I would keep them.
When it came time to write Georgia’s biography, Anita was asked to do the honors. That was the beginning of the end of their friendship. Oh there were other issues that eroded the friendship in time, (read the letters to find out) but the final blow for Georgia was how Anita portrayed the artist’s life in a manuscript she had hoped to publish about her long time, and now oh so famous, artist friend.
Georgia got picky. She didn’t like how Anita said there were “fields of many-colored flowers” near Georgia’s birthplace. There weren’t that many flowers, said Georgia in one of the many long, downright snippy, notes she wrote to Anita about her misconceptions. Anita made the mistake of saying Georgia was happy. No I wasn’t, said Georgia. In fact, said Georgia, I don’t even like the idea of happiness. Then Anita called her friend “a shy beauty.” Nope. On that one I agree as Georgia was actually no beauty. Regal looking, but Anita was the beauty. And so Georgia’s complaints of how Anita saw her life went on and on. Finally Georgia refused permission to her friend to publish any book about her famous self.
So instead many years letter this book of the letters between the women was published. Anita was a champion of Georgia’s work, and was her ally and dearest friend, but in the end Anita could not write Georgia’s life to the artist’s satisfaction.
I met a woman recently who was going to take a group of people on a trek through Peru. This is Costa Rica. Haven’t gotten to Peru yet. So I said that would be interesting story to write. She said that I should I write her story. I said No. I think people, if at all possible, need to write their own story. How we perceive our own life can be very different than what people see from the outside. Anita saw her friend living in a house with flowers and smiles. But the person who had lived the life didn’t see the flowers. And that was her right.
This made me think about my friend Jo Anna who died about a year ago. I now and then will remember stories about her. No one told her life story, but if they did how would it be told? Example. I thought her husband was decent, but then I spoke with another woman and she said Jo Anna said he was a brute. I won’t be writing Jo Anna’s life story, but It would be difficult for me to write it any other way than the way I perceived her life. If nothing else, we should get to tell about own life through our own lens. However cloudy or clear.
What does this all mean? If you want to be remembered a certain way, better start putting it on paper. If you don’t care either way, then however people remember you is just fine. As long as they remember you. Especially the ones you’ve loved. Also if there are journals and diaries lying around that you don’t want read, or possibly letters, decide now if they need to be shredded or would it be okay for grandchildren to read about grandma’s or grandpa’s wild nights listening to the Bee Gees and disco dancing.
P.S. This is an old photo an old friend sent me during my years as a cocktail waitress in a rock and roll bar in Denver. I know he’s not a writer, so I think I’m safe because I think he might get my story a little too accurate.