Writing: Remembering Lydia Langstaff

writer, Lydia Langstaff, young writers, heart defects

Lydia Langstaff was just starting out but accomplished a great deal. Creative Commons: Dave Morrison, flickr

Today I heard that there is a celebration for a man who is one of the longest living with a heart transplant. Diagnosed at 21 with a fatal heart disease and given weeks to live, he received a heart transplant and 26 years later, he’s still going strong. This made me think of Lydia Langstaff, a young writer who I once knew. We were both part of the same writer’s group. Lydia and I began to do some individual critiquing of each other’s work on the side.

She was under thirty and was truly like a porcelain doll. Her skin was nearly translucent, a pale white, and her eyes were large. Lydia’s hair was blond and her rounded nails had a tinge of blue. In many ways she was as delicate as a fey being who spends a short time navigating the world of humans. You see, Lydia had a congenital heart defect. Her nails and skin were part of her condition. Her heart was such a tremulous thing that Lydia could never fly, nor even walk up a flight of stairs. The strain would have been too much.

She told me once her family called her their miracle because she had never been expected to live past birth. And yet she did. She

Lydia Langstaff, memento mori, remembering writers, speculative writing,

Writing may be less ephemeral than our lives. Creative Commons: pirano Bob R, flickr, by William Michael Harnett

made it through her world carefully, and uncomplaining. Lydia’s husband, Jeff Langstaff, supported her and they were both aware of her tenuous hold on the reins of life.

For the brief while I got to know Lydia she was a determined writer. She never ever complained about her condition. She persevered and lived with it. And she was becoming a good author. She sold a few stories and possibly some poems. She and I were working on novels. I had read some of hers. And then one day we heard that Lydia had died suddenly, one night in the arms of her husband. They had always known it could happen any time, but it was still a surprise that she died so young, at 28.

After Lydia’s death, her husband Jeff asked me to look through her manuscript. It turns out she had finished the first draft of a novel and he wondered what it would take to make it publishable. I read it and didn’t charge him, in honor of Lydia. It was a mythic tale, of traveling back in time to Scotland’s early history, of accepting one’s destiny. I told him that it would take some editing to make it publishable but it wasn’t bad. I couldn’t do it for free but I would halve my rate. He told me he’d think about it because even an edited manuscript doesn’t mean it will be published. It languished in a drawer and I never heard from Jeff again.

It’s been about 16 years since Lydia died and I still have her manuscript. I don’t know what her maiden name is and attempts to find Jeff have not succeeded. I’m loath to throw out the manuscript as it seems to disrespect Lydia’s memory. Yet should I edit it and then self-publish it under both our names? If I did that, I’d have to split the proceeds after my cost; Lydia’s half going to heart research. But is that ethical? I feel stuck and wonder what would be right. I’d love to honor her memory and let her story see the light but I’m not family and yet, I can’t find them. What do you think I should do? And if you know a Jeff Langstaff, have him read this and contact me if he’s the right one.

There is a Lydia Langstaff Memorial Prize that On Spec puts out (possibly sporadically) given to a writer under 30. I think it will be resurrected again. But I’d like to know what to do with Lydia’s manuscript and I’d dearly love to find her family. In the meantime, I have another part of Lydia’s legacy. She taught me to cherish each moment because time is ephemeral and I’ve had so much more time than she did. She showed me that one can accomplish a great deal, even with physical handicaps. I don’t always remember  these lessons but I try to because Lydia gave it her all for her short time in this earthly realm.


Filed under art, Culture, fantasy, health, Writing

7 responses to “Writing: Remembering Lydia Langstaff

  1. Clélie Rich

    Wow, Colleen, thanks for reminding me about Lydia. She was such a sweet soul.

  2. If you are so inclined, I would suggest finishing it and publishing it under both your names, donating half the proceeds to heart research as you suggest.

  3. I remember Lydia well, and I remember her unfinished manuscript. Lydia was, as Clelie says, a sweet soul — and a tremendously courageous one.

  4. Hi Colleen, If it was finished then I’m not sire how you can add your name except as editor and of course you can add a forward.
    I can’t imagine any author not wanting their work published or to be remembered for it, so getting it published and donating the bulk of the income should there be any seems reasonable and ethical. If you accept a portion as fee for editing that also seems more than reasonable.

    • colleenanderson

      Yes, Paul. It depends on how much work needs to be done. If it’s just copyediting, then she is the only author. If however, I have to do some rewriting, then it gets iffy where to draw the line. And it’s a lot of work and overall her piece not mine. That’s part of the reason it gets to be a mix. I have my own works to do but also feel it would be a way of keeping her legacy alive. I wish I could find her family.

      • I think there is another ethical issue re authorship: if Colleen has to do considerable rewriting, she needs to add her name not only to credit her contribution, but to take her share of the responsibility for the result. If I were to die tonight, I would like someone to finish my novel, but I would want it noted that they rewrote the last six chapters (or whatever) in case they took the novel in a direction I had not expected. I’d want to say, “hey, here’s my legacy” but I’d also want to say “as adapted by…” you know?

        To Colleen, I’d note that the danger of editing a departed friend’s work is in the phrase “her piece not mine”. My biggest problems as an editor always occurred when I got too hung up on trying to preserve the author’s original voice and consequently was not willing to ‘interfere’ with the original text perhaps as much as it needed. Trust your own instincts and think of it as a collaboration rather than editing, or it won’t work. (If you do not feel your own style/interests are compatible, then maybe find another genre author with whom the manuscript does resonate, and step back to position of project manager?)

        Or another possible approach is to take the manuscript on, but then submit it to another editor — either through a publisher, or freelance — so that that unconnected editor can provide constructive feedback about where you have to add more Colleen, if you follow me. Or, at least what is necessary to make the manuscript as good as it could be. It may be possible to find someone to do this pro bono or, at least at a much reduced rate.

  5. Jeff Langstaff

    Colleen, this is amazing ! I just came across your website today . . . I remember you and Lydia writing together those many years ago. I still have ‘The Parchment Prison’ on an old 3 1/2 inch floppy, and something even more significant to me which gives a tender insight to Lydia’ life and her condition . . . a collection of poems written by her.
    She was very prolific and shortly after she passed away I selected a number of poems arranged chronologically which told the story of her life. I have always wished to see them published but not being a writer myself had never followed up this idea.
    I remarried 12 yeras ago and now live in Nova Scotia. I look forward to hearing from you soon !
    Jeff Langstaff

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