The Last Word : Back up!
There was a Hemingway story about a man and his wife. Like many Hemingway characters, they were Americans abroad, traveling on their honeymoon, I believe. The wife is weird. She begins to dress like her husband (which apparently was remarkable back in the mid-20th century) even to cutting her hair off in his manly style. He is a writer, working hard on a novel that isn't going very well. She is jealous of his attention to it and does everything she can, subconsciously, of course, to distract him (including some gender bending stuff that isn't appropriate to mention in a family newspaper). He writes - and I'll never forget the word because it was so European, Hemingway's nod to his own expatriate years - in a cahier. It is defined as "pages gathered together as in a loose-leaf notebook." So, the main character is writing in his notebook, ignoring his wife, drinking lots of cassis and staring off into the blinding South of France, or maybe it was Spain, sunlight. Eventually his wife, decidedly a little crazy at this point, shreds his novel. He didn't have a back-up copy. Even though I wasn't yet deep into novel writing, this willful destruction of the written word horrified me. The finality of it. The idea that anyone would do such a thing put me off Hemingway for a long time. Maybe forever.
There are other literary examples of this, I once read a novel in which a writer working on a bloated tome for a decade suddenly loses his pages to a windstorm. He doesn't have a back-up copy. Dare I mention the disastrous fate of the library at Alexandria? All lost. No back-up copies.
My fixation on these events is an understandable result of my own recent computer disaster. My elderly laptop finally bit the big one and on it, inaccessible, were not only six years of photographs, the Christmas card list, minutes for an organization I belong to, my Quicken accounts but, gasp, yes, my new novel. Fortunately, I had emailed a copy of the first 50 pages to my agent, so I knew that I had access to that much of it. All was not lost. But it was the further writing, the next eight hard-won pages that were gone and not backed up. Could I replicate what I'd written word for word, or even come close? In a word, no.
The odd thing for me is that once I write something, which then goes missing, which does happen now and then, I cannot redo it. I can pull up parts, a sentence or two, but the whole is gone. The thin line of thinking that led me in a certain direction while sitting at my computer on a given morning isn't there the next time I write. The impulse, the emotion of that instance, is different the next time I sit down. I may still know where I'm going, but the journey is by a different route. The scenery has changed.
The creative process, mysterious at the best of times, is not something that I can explain, any more than any other writer or artist. If we could replicate our lost work word for word, it would be boilerplate, not creativity. The day, the sunshine, the distractions, the sudden inspiration of a melody, change everything. It's a bit like that phenomena observed by detectives in that if you have one incident and four witnesses, you get four different viewpoints. The same is true with writing. I know that my middle-aged female protagonist was mulling over her three-decades-old decision to marry her husband. I know that I really liked where her thinking was going and several of the sentences were pitch perfect. When I thought that those few lines were gone forever, I simply couldn't bring them back. The second witness would have a different view.
If only we weren't so dependent on computers to do everything for us, store our family photos, our finances, even our livelihoods. I say that, but the fact is, with diligent backing up, and with the remote server services of online storage, nothing is ever truly lost. Fire destroyed the library, Catharine destroyed her husband's pages; the wind took that schlubby author's unreadable novel. If either of those fictional fictions had been saved to disk, or saved on a flash drive, the victims could have thumbed their noses at the perpetrators, but then there wouldn't have been the key dramatic moment in those stories. To a writer, the idea of lost work is such a viscerally horrifying idea that it lends itself to usage. I liken it to facing the demon. What you fear most becomes a great plot device, and maybe by getting it on paper you can neutralize the fear.
The good news, my personal hero at the local computer infirmary was able to resuscitate the laptop, but only for a short time. It coded again, this time with a DNR, and is now awaiting burial. Luckily, the day I got my laptop back after the first time it crashed, I pulled the novel off it - complete with the missing eight pages. I have learned an important lesson: back up every time. My flash drive is my best friend. However, like remembering to turn off the lights when I leave a room, the best intentions become erratic over time. I'll never know if, had I been forced to replace those critical lines, they would have been as good as that first version. Or, would they have been an improvement? And, who knows, maybe in rewrite, I'll change them to what I might have come up with if I'd had to start over. Maybe those second thoughts are lingering in my subconscious, a new witness to the story. I'll back that version up too.
Susan Wilson is a monthly contributor to The Times.