By Owen Townend
It starts with a gut wrench. There’s usually some muttering of ‘no, no, no’ which gradually raises in volume and pitch. There may even be a touch of computer screen thumping. Your Work in Progress is lost.
But how? You forgot to save. You saved over it with something else. You pressed ‘save’ but the damn program didn’t fulfil the request. That’s all assuming, of course, that you’re using the latest technology. Water spoils ink, pencil marks fade, paper catches fire and loose pages scatter in the wind.
I’ve had the former happen to me, which is to say technological mishaps. All it takes is a tired eye and clumsy finger to lose something which made me rather proud. Then I curse myself, seethe as I search for other ways to recover the document and without fail want to weep.
The first time was a fantasy novel. I was twelve years old and The 13th Dimension had kept me occupied for a couple of years. This was a sprawling high adventure, featuring elements borrowed from Lord of the Rings and shamelessly pilfered from The Edge Chronicles. I wasn’t exactly proud of it at the time, it was more of a compulsion that never seemed to end.
But it did end. Around the same time, I fancied myself a videogame designer and wanted to play with franchises and licenses that weren’t mine. One of these was the TV show Rugrats, for which I created a racing game. If I wasn’t exactly enamoured with The 13th Dimension, then I was thoroughly neutral about Rugrats Racers. Of course, this changed for the worse when I accidentally saved it under The 13th Dimension title. Back then Microsoft Word gave only one warning before going ahead with saving over the old file.
I was distraught but determined to find a way to undo the mistake. I must have consulted every tech savvy person I knew, only to be faced with the crushing truth that The 13th Dimension was gone for good. A hundred or so pages of self-made story replaced by three pages of vague notes about a racing game I couldn’t even make. I lost my fervour for designing video games after that too.
Being young and dramatic, I refused to even try rewriting The 13th Dimension. I had no confidence in my ability to recapture past creativity, which now seems so pointlessly tragic. Then again, I can’t say how much of that plot would have survived editing, let alone a rigorous check for plagiarism. I do still remember certain scenes from it though. Who knows, The 13th Dimension might even make a comeback someday, at least in part.
I was much less fussed six years later when I mislaid a poem. That being said, it was a good poem that played with form. I wrote two verses that mirrored each other on the same page though in terms of emotional meaning, not rhyme. Since that time, I’ve done more daring things with poetic form but, at the tender age of eighteen, I was definitely proud of this mirror verse. Proud enough to send it as part of a portfolio to apply for my university creative writing degree. Somewhere along the way, I must have forgotten to save the copy I sent to Sheffield Hallam Uni anywhere else, and subsequently lost the original email with the attachment. This was me at my most lethargic. Even now I can’t be bothered seeking it out, not because it’s a mere blank verse poem, but because it wasn’t very special beyond its reflection gimmick. I can’t even recall the title. All I know is it got me onto the degree where I ended up writing better stuff.
Of course, the clumsiness doesn’t stop there. At 30 years old, I have been known to lose edited novella chapters and diary entries simply because I forget to check the dates of the file I’ve just worked on and the file I want this to replace. No matter how small the loss is, I curse my slow brain and fidgety hand for rendering the day’s effort redundant.
I pace the kitchen in a boyish sulk, waste half an hour skimming videos about restoring Word documents, conclude I’ll just end up wrecking my properly saved work that way and then I finally open up a new page and start fresh.
I work to a deadline and surprise myself with a second wind. Often I’ll fail to evoke the idealised first sentence and huff and puff my way through the opening paragraphs, but then I’ll reach a phrase that drew a smile on the first go-round and ride its creative optimism right to the end. I’ll spend an extra ten minutes primping this draft and read it aloud till I’m happy with it, saving every damn time I even add a comma.
Sometimes I’ll rediscover the original ‘lost’ copy later down the line but normally I disregard it. It may sound like a cloying justification but for me the new draft is usually better. If it’s worse, I’ll start again with two points of reference and borrow/pilfer from both accordingly.
The effort always feels tedious and brings my moments of stupidity into sharp focus. However, once I’m back to a strong finish, there is a secondary wave of accomplishment that is more comforting than the first. I lost my writing but I eventually got it back again, and without anyone noticing too.
Then, months ahead, I can’t even remember what passages I rewrote or indeed what words and sentences they were replacing. It all just merges together under the banner of ‘I Wrote This Once’.
I will continue to write and so will probably continue to lose certain writing due to negligence and incompetence. That’s human nature whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Losing writing is always a gut wrench, but I have the stomach for it now. We writers must develop an iron constitution.