It’s just the worst, isn’t it? Something you worked on for hours accidentally deleted, and none of the technical tips and tricks have worked to recover it. Not the ‘restore previous versions’ function on the recycle bin, not downloading that special software… Nothing. Gone.
It will be a recognisable heart-sinker for almost everyone, certainly at work at some point. Though it must have been so much worse before computers, when everything was laboriously pecked out on a typewriter or, perhaps more cruelly, done in longhand.
T E Lawrence is said to have accidentally have left a draft of his quasi-autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom, describing his experiences in the Arabian desert, behind on Reading Station whilst changing trains. Imagine trying to recover that? Not the sinking hope it will be berthed safely in Trash or somewhere in the deepest Archives, but a despairing expedition to the Lost Property office. At any rate, the original typescript was lost to Lawrence—believed to have turned up again in the 1980s.
Trains must have been a particular hazard back in the day, because several years after Lawrence’s experience, in 1922 (the year Seven Pillars finally was published, in fact), Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley took a train from Paris to join her husband in Switzerland, packing Ernest’s works in progress in her bag—including carbon copies. Even if you haven’t heard this well-known story before, you can guess where it’s going. Yes, whilst she was buying water for the trip, Hadley’s bag was stolen, manuscripts, carbon copies, and all. Hemingway wrote about the incident—Hadley’s “unbearable suffering” over it and his own response—in his memoir A Moveable Feast.
Novelist and poet JM Falkner lost a manuscript on the train between Durham and Newcastle. Also on a public-transport theme, popular fiction author Jilly Cooper left an early manuscript of her saucy novel Riders on a London bus, and took over a decade to get around to re-writing it.
There are many famous and similarly tragic tales of work either lost to the world, or having to painfully be re-done by their renowned creators— from Robert Ludlum (lost in a bar—probably) to A S Byatt (a notebook stolen by a motorcycle thief at a red light in Rome).
Aside from indicating that a person’s sole copy of a manuscript should never leave the house (as long as there isn’t a house fire, that is), all of this puts my own recent loss into huge perspective.
Not only am I not some titan of literature (erm, very obviously), nor the producer of page-turning bestsellers, it was just a few thousand words. Painful, yes—those words took precious time I do not have, and included research. Moreover, I felt I was making progress and getting back into writing having been unable to do so for a few weeks. BUT, it’s obviously a relatively minor matter.
Fruitless searching through folders done with, there is nothing for it now but to get on with re-writing, whilst trying to adopt a philosophical perspective. With this acceptance in mind, I will try to remember this weekend, as I settle at the desk for several stolen hours, that
• The work is not completely gone—some of the ideas are there still in my head, and I had better get them out again quick smart, and…
• If I cannot recall some of the draft, perhaps it wasn’t that memorable and worth re-writing in any case.
• The text may improve through this enforced form of ‘re-writing’. It may be leaner or better structured; new ideas may come that will enhance it. Well, one can hope…
And yes, it’s a lesson learned (again!) For all their advantages, computers bring new risks of failure, to forget to save, accidentally delete, or to overwrite. So yes, back up; back up; back up. Though all I can say to that is: I know; I know; I know. And no doubt I will make the same mistake again one day.
There is a good audio account by Hadley of the Hemingway lost manuscript here http://www.thehemingwayproject.com/2018/08/22/hadley-talks-about-the-lost-manuscripts/
Images: Tama66; rawpixel