On Artists and Legacies

2016 has only just begun, and it has not been kind to the arts. Just within my usual circles, I heard about David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Brian Bedford, Mic Gillette, Glenn Frey, and David G. Hartwell. It’s enough to get me brushing up on my chess skills in the event that I need to play a match with Death over my favorite creators and artistic friends.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that mourning the loss of someone you’ve never met was possible. I could appreciate someone’s contributions to society, their art, or whatever it was they did; I would of course have sympathy for their families during a difficult time; and in some cases I’d be disappointed that they were no longer around. But until the guy with the black cloak and scythe started coming after those people whose names, actions, and achievements I recognized and followed for years, it was never something that really hit me.

Of all of the deaths so far this year, Alan Rickman’s hit me the hardest. I’m an American and therefore unfamiliar with the bulk of his work, but I grew up with the Harry Potter franchise, so on top of other films he worked on I saw him over the course of eight movies that spanned roughly a decade. I heard all of the stories about how kind he was in spite of playing such famously cantankerous roles and how well-loved he was. Rickman wasn’t the emotional equivalent of a friend or father to me, but something more along the lines of an uncle or grandfather: an older presence in my life attached to a number of happy or bittersweet memories that I didn’t spend enough time with when I had the chance. His death was a loss in so many ways, and my usual social media haunts are still reeling.

What makes a legacy? I’ve been wondering that as I scroll through numerous Instagram pictures of Professor Snape, deer, and the word “Always” and the various memes, cartoons, and articles on Twitter and Facebook commemorating his other works and his non-acting life. Whatever a legacy is, it’s clear that he has one, but what does that mean? Is he going to be immortal through the characters he portrayed? Through his real-world philanthropy? Through the people he inspired to do what they love, and by extension their works? Through the sheer number of people—strangers, even—that loved him without ever once meeting him?

I’m a big enough nerd that I looked to etymology to see if I could find a satisfactory answer. Based on fewer than three minutes of Googling, it appears that the word “legacy” itself comes from the Latin legatus—“person delegated.” When I tried “legend” to see if that would yield anything different, I came to another Latin word, legere, which seems to mean “to read.” Between those two, I think it’s safe to say that while you can definitely forge your own path or pick your own destiny, other people choose whether or not your acts and their memories of you constitute a legacy. You can’t control what other people will say about you after you’re gone, but you can certainly control the impact you have on them while you’re still around.

Some of the most popular advice for new writers, and a lot of the stuff I’ve honestly been taking to heart, is that you try to blend in. Unless it’s the hill you want to die on, you stay out of politics, religion, and activism. Lay low and don’t ruffle any feathers so that you can build the largest and most diverse audience possible. And really, I can see the logic: why alienate potential readers? I certainly don’t want to scare people away from me before I’ve published something they might have heard of. It fits in with my personality to be generally agreeable as well as risk-averse (and I’m a writer, I know), so that’s what I’ve been doing. My Facebook Page is pretty sparse except for links to my blog posts; my Twitter is mostly random musings, retweeted articles about writing, and pieces of microfiction; and my Instagram, despite my best efforts and promises to the contrary, is mostly cat and food pictures. Non-inflammatory. Boring, and maybe even cowardly, but safe.

At the same time, though, it’s those people that have opinions and voices and use them that are the ones that make changes. These are the writers that treat their readers as readers, students, or friends rather than customers there to purchase their book. These are people that aren’t afraid to fight for what they love and believe in, and that kind of courage and conviction inspires people. You can’t say anything important without making enemies, especially in the age of social media, but you can find and make incredible allies if you take some kind of stand, and isn’t that what we’re supposed to do as artists?

I know that all of these people I’ve mentioned are celebrities. I’m not a celebrity, I doubt that I’ll ever be one, and frankly, I don’t even want to be. All I ask is that my stories touch and inspire people. Sure, I want to be a talented and prolific writer, but I also want to be a good one. So many good people just passed away, and each left a mark because they weren’t insulated from other people. They cared so much that they didn’t care what their potential critics might say.

I have gifts, and I should use them. I just need to be better than I am and work up the courage to start fighting harder than I am. There are causes and people that I believe in and could use my help, and I have a responsibility to give what I can to them. The entire point of writing is to get my voice out there, and I shouldn’t be withholding it in the interest of selling myself.

None of those people hid, and neither should I.