The Witliff Collections (Feature Post)

By Justin C. Gordon

Perhaps you are one of those people who can put your leg behind your head or revise a novel without ever becoming despondent or you can even do both, but I’m not. Chiseling out a strong paragraph can feel euphoric, but falling off a story’s arc brings a loathsomeness that even a double-no-whip-hot chocolate can’t quickly diffuse. Writers have to stay inspired. The work of writing, not the thinking about it or the selling of it, but the physical work of writing requires concentration, isolation, and hands on keys—or as Vonnegut put it, a man sitting still for decades. Reading other people’s work helps. It’s the gateway drug for many writers, but how to stay motivated during your transition from user to pusher when the final product (book/download/audio file) seems so polished and my desk (flowcharts/napkin-notes/manuscript) is a sloppy mess?

I suggest looking at the sloppy messes of Cormac McCarthy, Sam Shepard, John Graves, Stephen Harrigan, Beverly Lowry, Larry McMurtry, Katherine Anne Porter, and Rick Riordan archived in the Wittliff Collection at Texas State University. Thirty minutes from Austin and located on the seventh floor of the Alkek Library is a free resource of inspiration. It is open to the public. This includes writers. Within it are exhibits and archives dedicated to the work of writing by people who spent their lives doing it.

Bill and Sally Wittliff founded the Southwest Writers Collection in 1986. It was expanded into the Wittliff Collection to include The Southwestern & Mexican Photography Collection and The Lonesome Dove Room.

From stepping off of the elevator,  the place is very impressive,  clean and bright, light stained pine wood fixtures, and very welcoming. Set in the wall behind the main entrance is a keystone with a carved star from the old Bee County Courthouse. It was rescued by J. Frank Dobie who provided the first archive collection of his diaries, journals, and manuscripts. The hard textures of the keystone does not feel out of place amongst the room’s clean lines, but gives great weight conveying that the collection is both secure and very Texan. This is where Katherine Salzmann,  Lead Archivist and kind guide works.

To the left are the photography and painting galleries, which might help remind those who frequently freebase words and punctuation symbols there are more colors than black and white; think vitamins to the eyes.

To the right is the Southwest Writers Collection’s current exhibit featuring Cormac McCarthy. It conveys a lifetime of a writer who stayed inspired even in times of being dirt poor (he was once evicted from a forty dollar a month New Orleans hotel). Presenting letters arguing noun usages to his longtime editor Albert Erskine (who had also been Faulkner’s editor), meticulous proofing, reveals the painstaking revision process. McCarthy uses a mechanical pencil for clean, almost draftsman-like slash marks and very tiny printed changes of dialogue or direction or voice.

If there is someone who knows a life of writing, it is Bill Wittliff, screenwriting credits for Lonesome Dove the Mini-Series, Legends of the Fall, and The Perfect Storm. Also archived are the works of Academy Award-winning writer-director Robert Benton’s Bonnie and Clyde, Places in the Heart, Kramer vs. Kramer and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr.  of Apollo 13, Cast Away, China Beach. Screenplays and notes are available.  From television, King of the Hill, Fox TV’s animated series set in Texas, documenting all stages of the Emmy Award-winning show: from the writers’ research materials, stylebooks, and office photos to storyboards, drawings, and the progressive script drafts of every episode. Texas Monthly, which is responsible for launching many writers’ careers, is stored from the first issue in 1973 and ongoing. The catalogue includes editorial, issue, and editor files equalling out to 900 linear feet of material. All are free to review and learn from.

Katherine Salzmann suggests people visit the website, request their information, and set a time. The staff pulls the files, forms need signing, and the staff collects the files. Most are in boxes from all these writers and range from letters, to drafts, and (surprise, surprise) notes on napkins. Even more inspiring, some of the third and fourth books of these archived writers look just as messy as their first. Recognizing process is key to realizing where one is in it.

Does anyone know if their messes will be archived? I didn’t get that sense as most writers are too busy at the work of writing, but some understood the value of the collection. Legendary Texas journalist Billy Porterfield said when invited to have his work archived by the Wittliff, “To have my scraps and memories included with the papers of so many writers I admire and so many friends I’ve grown up with — or grown old with — is a great honor. Somewhere down the road, a young writer may stumble in and find his muse tucked away in one of these old boxes of words that we have left behind. But ask him to be gentle with her when he finds her. She has served us well.”

Getting back in the elevator, I may not be able to put my leg over my head, but I’m inspired to revise my book.

Justin Gordon is a member of the Texas Writer’s League and is currently working on a novel called The Electric Pickle.

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