When the Machine Eats Your Stuff

I first learned about word processing at a local newspaper, where, every day or so, some overcaffeinated future Pulitzer winner would push his or her chair back, pound the innocuous beige plastic of a terminal (this was before slim, flat-screen single computers could do it all) and yell, “NO! NO!”

What had previously lived on a green screen with yellow letters had vanished forever, and the response from human beings was not good. Representatives of the species howled, cursed, kicked inanimate objects (metal trash cans were a favorite of the assistant editorial page editor) and swore that no amount of new technology could replace the typewriter. After about two minutes, one of the people would saunter in from their severely air conditioned lair–casually, blissfully, as if he just came out of a yoga class and wait strategically until the profanity ebbed and say, “Next time, hit the save button.”

Contemporary word processors are supposed to save what you do automatically. You find the latest version, pull it up and see that it’s all there EXCEPT for the great string of prose that you had labored upon for the last hour because, last night, before going to bed, you had just read a schpritz from one of those fancy prose stylists and you wanted to show the world that you can swim with the big fishes. That’s gone. Forever.

I’ve been through this so many times now and I no longer go quite so crazy. Yesterday when a post for this blog vanished a few seconds after I had finished it (and was not saved, for reasons I’ll never know), I sighed wistfully, remembering so many piles of text that had similarly vaporized, and how the only practical response is “it wasn’t meant to be.”

From a philosophical point of view, that’s a rather weak rationalization. It presumes that things happen for reasons, that some outside, presumably supernatural force is in charge, this force only wants good things for everybody (despite the observance that what happens you may not be so good for me, and vice versa) and that what could have been a mere goof, or a mistakenly tapped key, or, a causally causal connection that Charles Dickens’ Scrooge would explain as “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato,” was, in truth, a divinely sanctioned act whose ultimate benefit may not be immediately apparent but would, in time, present itself as a greater good.

Until then, it’s best to do something different and, maybe, when emotions return to the midpoint, you can attempt to repeat what you know you cannot duplicate fully. Or not.

I think life is more about chances than choices. A chance for a writer starts with that scary thing: a blank page–digital or actual. You also need something that will make a mark on that page that, you hope, will remain consistent for a while. I say this because I have had too many broken pencil points (and no sharpener anywhere), dry pens, and typewriters that break in ways that can’t be fixed with a ribbon change or a bent paperclip.

Finally, you must recognize the time you have to fill the page. That usually means you must endure distraction, an inspiration that isn’t fully understood, an urge to do research that you must stifle or you’ll find out all these cool facts about delft china or plant-based toxins common to Central America without writing the scene that uses them, and forget about checking e-mail, letting your social media pals know you’re about to craft the greatest work of art the world will ever know, or going to the kitchen and opening the fridge.

You just have to start, knowing that you’re not ready, the writing conditions could be better, you may not be feeling as healthy as you should be, at any moment the phone could summon you to the shop where what you thought was basic maintenance is now a major auto repair, or you just had a publishing industry gatekeeper reject your last work with one of those blandly cordial notes that indicate to you that the person in whom you had put all your hopes didn’t bother to look at what you’ve sent.

You have to start.







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