word craft


My best piece of writing

On the recent­ly viewed Ken Burns doc­u­men­tary on Ernest Hem­ing­way, he relates an inci­dent in which the writer, in Spain (I recall) asked his wife to bring a suit­case of his recent writ­ings to him. She was in Paris. The sto­ry goes that the suit­case was lost on a train, nev­er to be found. The inci­dent, so it appears, did not help the marriage. 

And I once heard Gar­ri­son Keil­lor describe a time when he lost a bun­dle of man­u­script, also on a train. I remem­ber, if mem­o­ry still holds, he was sure it was the best writ­ing he had ever composed. 

lost files

Any­one who works on a com­put­er (as I do) knows the rou­tine. You think you have saved some­thing, and you haven’t, or you save it to one of your five thou­sand files, and you don’t know which and you can’t find it, or the elec­tric­i­ty goes out for two sec­onds and the com­put­er blinks off, or you send some­thing to some­one sure you have an extra copy, and it isn’t, and the work is lost in the mail. 

I think about this today because I just lost my morning’s work. My best piece of writ­ing? Of course! But I’ll nev­er know. I’ll just think it. 

Admit it: It’s hap­pened to you, and I’m sure it was your best piece of writing. 

The one sto­ry I heard about some­thing like this with a hap­py end­ing goes like this, a pre-com­put­er sto­ry. A friend of mine after many years of labor had fin­ished her Ph.D. the­sis. Hav­ing typed it up—she had one of those elec­tric type­writ­ers which used a spool of car­bon rib­bon to ink the page—she bun­dled up the man­u­script and head­ed across her uni­ver­si­ty town to deliv­er the the­sis to her pro­fes­sor. She went on a bicy­cle (poor stu­dent) and had put the MS in her bike bas­ket. On the way, she paused to buy her­self a cel­e­bra­to­ry cup of cof­fee. (No doubt she had been up all-night typing). 

When she came out of the cof­fee shop, the manuscript—the only copy of the man­u­script she had—was gone. Har­row­ing. Dis­as­ter. Total trauma. 

A search ensued in which a fair num­ber of peo­ple were involved. Since the man­u­script had no earth­ly val­ue to any­one but her, sure­ly the thief, on real­iz­ing what was stolen, threw it away, so the search includ­ed numer­ous trashcans. 

searching trashcans
Pho­to 83016429 © Marko Buko­rovic | Dreamstime.com

It was not found. Her best piece of writing—and the most cru­cial she had ever composed. 

Then she had an idea: That spool of car­bon rib­bon. She looked at it care­ful­ly. When the keys of that type­writer hit that kind of rib­bon, they punched out the car­bon, leav­ing a bare spot in the shape of the let­ter. Unspool­ing the entire tape (the length of the dis­tance from the earth to the moon) my friend real­ized that the entire man­u­script was there, upside down to be sure, but THERE. 

She took that rib­bon and cut it up sen­tence by sen­tence and past­ed each line in a blank book.  Good­ness knows how long that took but, in the end, she recon­sti­tut­ed the entire book. 

Then she retyped TWO copies. 

The moral of this sto­ry: don’t lose your writ­ing. Because if you do lose it, it was your best. 

As for my lost pages today, I’ve not found them. Sure­ly my…… Nev­er mind.

5 thoughts on “My best piece of writing”

  1. There’s the cloud, though I have mixed feels about send­ing my impor­tant files hun­dreds of miles away, under the care of Google or Microsoft.

  2. I always think in regards to my com­put­er… It is not if it goes, but when it goes. So you got­ta save every­thing. I was remem­ber­ing that when I did lose that “best piece” of writ­ing, after tears, an argu­ment with myself, and prob­a­bly a curse word at the com­put­er… I actu­al­ly wrote an even bet­ter piece that sec­ond time around.

  3. Just the thought of los­ing a piece of writ­ing — no mat­ter how short — is ter­ri­fy­ing. How­ev­er, if I’m being hon­est, when­ev­er I’ve been forced to rewrite some­thing I’ve lost, the 2nd ver­sion turns out 1,000% bet­ter than the orig­i­nal. It just hurts more.

  4. I think we all have lost work in the evil side of the com­put­er. Before I used back­up I lost all my pho­tographs. Thank God I saved all my cam­era cards..


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