Once, about ten years ago, I lost an entire Documents folder of work. It was devastating. A niece was visiting, and without my permission, she used my computer, visiting and downloading free music and videos. When I began writing the next time, the computer crashed. Crashed. Gone, almost everything. It was in the era before flash drives, and I had saved a fair amount of my work on CD’s. But I got careless. I was the only one to use the computer, and I hadn’t saved for a while. I lost about thirty complete poems and a number of first drafts. Stupid, stupid, stupid. What hurt and shocked me was my niece’s reaction when I confronted her about the problem. She was sorry. As sorry as she knew how to be at that age, early teens. She was really sorry, but she didn’t think it was that big a deal because I had only lost a “bunch of old poems.” That bunch of old poems, of course, contained work I had developed over years and many revisions or that I was in the process of developing. Our relationship did survive, miraculously.
But as awful as this was, I did learn something. Maybe there are a few other writers out there who might benefit from thinking about this. If it’s on a computer, it’s not safe or guaranteed. Some work I lost permanently. Other pieces I had printed at various stages as they developed, so I had at least a good portion of some of them to try to reconstruct. For some, I dug through piles of old brainstorming for attempting a new poem from fragments. Some of this worked to one degree or another. I know for certain that one new poem I was able to write from fragmented jottings was actually a better poem than the original I had written to the same words and ideas. But most of it I never recovered. Even the best computer techs at our local Best Buy and Staples couldn’t get anything.
So now what do I do? Perhaps I’m killing rain forests, but I hope not since I recycle everything. I print every draft of a piece. Every one. Even though I’ve saved them on the computer. Maybe this is obsessive, but I want the poem in my hand on a piece of real paper. At the same time, I routinely back up everything on a flash drive. I don’t write early drafts at a desk. I rarely type at my desk, instead using my laptop. But I save everything at my desk. I take the computer to my desk, save it on a flash drive, and put the flash drive in my desk drawer!!! Sometimes I get a little careless, but once I realize I have been it’s straight to my desk after opening “recent works”. I don’t beat myself up anymore for being careless so long ago. It was a huge mistake, but it was one that could not be undone. Because of it, my work is safer now.
I don’t grieve anymore although I regret. I did grieve, though. Very much, very long. I think only another writer can really understand the pain of losing writing irretrievably. It felt as if I had lost a piece of myself in many ways. The only great writer I know of who has lost work is Ernest Hemingway. In the early twenties as his wife Hedley traveled to meet him for a vacation, she accidentally left a valise of his work on a train. She realized and went back very quickly, but it was gone. Because she didn’t realize the importance of copies of work back then before computers and flash drives, she had also included the carbon copies. Two years of early work was gone forever. She grieved for him because she loved him enough to have an idea of the suffering he was experiencing. But his own grief was unimaginable. He forgave her. I’m sure they both learned something valuable from the incident, from their different perspectives. He talks about it in his memoir written at the end of his life, titled A Moveable Feast. It is not only a memoir, but an obvious love letter to Hedley, his first wife.
He was a great writer who overcame a great loss, his work. He went on to mature as a writer. I am not a great writer. Perhaps my grief was therefore less. I have written so much since then, work I feel has deepened and matured. Still, I know in my heart that every one of us in our online community would grieve over lost work. So be careful, my friends. This post is a cautionary tale. May you never need it.