The Writer’s Nightmare

The lost manuscript. It happened to Amy Tan. It happened to Jilly Cooper. And to Leon Trotsky.

And this past Monday, I thought it had happened to me.

You know it’s bad when you walk into your study and the screen is black and there is an ominous yellow light pulsing in the corner. You scan the internet for advice and quickly learn that people consider a four year old computer a dinosaur. Yours is ten.

You race to the Apple Store. People gape at your fat, bulbous iMac. The very nice man at the Genius Bar looks at the hard drive and makes all kinds of weird faces. He consults with experts, who shake their heads. You are sent to TekServe, where the greeter takes one look at you and asks, “Are you repairing or recycling?”

I said, All I want to save is one document.

This one document was 160 pages of a new novel that has not been published or sent to my agent. The novel is a new kind of story for me, a leap that I’ve found very exciting, even as I recognize the marketplace might not agree. I’ve had a lot of good writing days with this book, those days where you make all kinds of unexpected connections, discover fresh scenes and new characters who speak in voices you haven’t heard in your head before.

And because I’m stupid, all that discovery existed in just one place: my ten year old computer.

Brilliant Mike A at Apple retrieved the shreds of my document and put in on my phone. It was up to the wonderful David B at Tekserve to convert it from the beyond ancient program it had been saved in to something readable by today’s devices. There were many doubts this could be done. At one point he asked if I was a religious woman. I said, “Spiritual?” He said, “Now would be a good time to pray.”

I had time, so I did. And thought about what I would do if we couldn’t save those pages. I had notes. I knew the outline, the basic scenes. But when I tried to remember the turns of phrase, the odd moments of emotional clarity, the exact rhythm of the dialogue, I couldn’t. I told myself I was tired and stressed out. If I had to start over, it would all come back. I just wasn’t sure I would have the energy to start over.

In Wonder Boys, Michael Douglas has a breakthrough when the pages of his unfinishable manuscript blow into the wind, never to be recovered. For him, it marks a new start, a break with a life that wasn’t working any more. I tried to see this loss in the same way. I couldn’t.

I have always thought of writing as 90% hard work. I tell students, if you wait for brilliance to strike, you’ll be waiting a long time. Get your butt in the seat regularly, rewrite a lot, and be grateful when you get those rare writing days when you’re actually inspired and it all feels like magic. I hate the word “art.” I like the word craft, with its connotations of work and effort and patience.

But as I sat in Tekserve, I was forced to admit that hard work might not be enough to recreate this manuscript. That there might be a little magic—and luck—in good writing. The randomness of inspiration was more real than I thought. So was obsolescence. It was a humbling day.

In the end, David B dragged an ancient mac that could talk to my ancient mac out of a back room and we saved my pages. (All blessings upon David B., who proved that hard work and inspiration do go hand in hand.) I will be able to finish my book and pass it on to others who will decide whether it can have its shot at the market. I hope I have more good days with it. I’ll try to return to my fantasy of control. “Inspiration is something you earn! Not something that arrives magically out of the blue!” It’s both, I suppose.

I am now off to spend over $1000 on something that is built to last only four years before it’s consigned to a landfill. In closing, I would like to point out that my father’s manual typewriter still works.

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4 thoughts on “The Writer’s Nightmare

  1. kimc64 says:

    So glad you got it back, Mariah! I know that feeling – even I have lost work. I, who should know better after years of working in technology.

  2. Lisa DeLange says:

    I love Tekserve, too. Very good people there. And it sounds like you, too had a breakthrough, but not on your manuscript, but on your craft!

  3. Oh, but you know I feel ambivalent about this breakthrough. One likes control. 🙂

  4. Possibly I’m reading too much about Queen Victoria these days.

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