The Last Word : Paper trail
The Brontë sisters lived in a little village called Haworth (pronounced Howarth) in Yorkshire. They wrote their bestsellers at home, laboring with pen and ink and taking their inspiration from their surroundings. Their books reflect the physical environment in which they lived and died, and their other influences can only be assumed to be books and whatever news their paterfamilias and brother gave them. The Pennine hills are dramatic and brooding, and folks like Heathcliff are nice representations of a forbidding environment.
If you go to visit Haworth today, you'll find it surprisingly unchanged from the day of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. Granted, the whole area is called Brontë Country and there is a fair commerce in Brontë souvenirs, but the place itself is little changed by two centuries of progress. Tourism exists side by side with a deeply rooted sense of tradition. They don't seem inclined to take down buildings just because they're 300 years old. They make do.
The parsonage where the Brontës lived has been turned into a museum devoted to all things Brontë. A writing table, a pen, the unchanging view. It's all there for the scholar or the tourist to enjoy, putting himself in their world. Which begs the question: can you imagine having objects that are used for not weeks, but years? A good pen refilled (!) not tossed in the trash once it reaches its last drop of ink. Here are the three dimensional objects (in the parlance of the museum trade) once used by the sisters. And, here too, are the papers that record the lives lived and the books written.
But what of modern writers? Woe betide the researcher who needs to study the history of 21st-century authors. With so much being done electronically, where will the paper record be? Since I started writing professionally, back in the days when a manuscript had to be doubled-spaced, one inch margins all around, page numbered and my name up on the top of every page should the ms, as they refer to it in the business, be divided up among readers, things have changed marvelously for submissions and correspondence with email. It's so easy. I write, I attach, I send. Trees are saved.
But if in some future day, when my weak efforts are suddenly classics (I'm a fiction writer, I get to pretend for a living) where will the clues to my existence be? Online. Certainly. But the physical evidence of a literary life? The notes and correspondence between author and agent, author and editor? Vanished into some cast-off CPU tower butchered for spare parts? A chilling thought. Bics chucked, drafts cut up into handy scrap paper pads, CDs mislaid and provocatively corrupted when opened? Flash drives, the best invention since the CD, may be as close as future researchers get to sniffing the ink of the 21st-century scribbler. I picture a museum of flash drives and other variations on "removable storage." College and university libraries will have special Lucite boxes made to hold these iconic possessions of esteemed authors. Instead of Mark Twain's typewriter, you can oooh and aah over the 58 MG memory stick of the mid-21st-century Pulitzer prize winner. You want to see the writing process from outline to draft to revisions to second draft to finished product? Slide a flash drive into your laptop and voila, uh, a finished ms. No drafts. The researcher's fascination in the process will be hard to fulfill when all drafts are relegated to oblivion of the trash icon to save room on the hard drive.
What will become of biographers chronicling lives when there is no record of what two people had to say to each other? If everything is done electronically or by telephone, where is the paper trail? There will be plenty of legal record, deeds, mortgages, and the like, but of the personal back and forth between a writer and friends - or fans - there will be nothing. Unless the correspondents think to print out their emails. The epistolary evidence of a writer's life will be non-existent; actually, is already pretty much nonexistent except in rare formal correspondence. There are no letters gathered together, painstakingly sorted correspondence and reply between author and editor. How possible will it be to have one of those compendiums of "conversations between poets and muses" like Ranier Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (1929). Young Franz Kappus, the young poet of the title, received ten letters over six years from the poet. What if they'd corresponded by texting? Kappus would probably have given up the poetry and joined the military and the world wouldn't have Rilke's thoughtful essays to ponder.
Maybe we don't really need the fusty old papers crammed into inadequate filing cabinets, maybe we just need the electronic version of things made accessible to the outside world. Surely bloggers will, like some forms of plastic, never degrade, but reside forever in the ether.
However, there is such a rush when a fragment of a person's life is discovered in a letter, or a simple note. Lives are made more comprehensible, and sometimes more mysterious, by the papers left behind. I have a box of letters that my grandmother received over a period of two years from a woman no one in the family recollects. Her story unfolds through those letters - of poverty, ill health, her children being placed in schools, no mention of a husband. How my prim, reserved and rather sheltered grandmother ever made this dire woman's acquaintance no one knows. Someday I might try to uncover who she was, and in doing so, find out something about my grandmother. There will be records somewhere, a paper trail.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.