Daphne, a private student, recently texted me in despair: An apology for wasting your time. I have lost everything: the books and all my notes because the computer fried. The whole thing is gone. If you want to sever this relationship because of my continued inability to meet commitments, I understand.
She is a good writer, talented, thorough and a quick learner. Her story is historical. Thematically it’s about how money controls our lives. While hardly an original theme, her male protagonist and his cronies make for good reading.
As a person, she’s a good daughter, a good friend, and mostly a good student. I texted her back: Don’t panic. Relax and breathe deeply. Call you in a bit.
When we spoke, I asked if she backed up her work to an external hard drive or to the cloud? Yes, but retrieving things would take days, maybe a week. The worst part is “I can’t write.”
“The computer fried. I am waiting for insurance and they will send me a new one.”
“You can only write on a computer?”
“What do you mean?”
“How about the old fashioned way? With pen and paper. Do you keep a notebook or journal?”
“I want to.”
“Ok, so now you have a reason.”
“I can do that.”
“Ok. So here’s what you do: you buy a lined notebook and you continue to write your story. Then when you get the computer, you transcribe it.”
“I don’t have time to get a notebook.”
“Who said it had to be a notebook?”
There was a pause.
“I have a legal pad.”
“How about a hard copy of the pages you have so far?”
“We can reconstruct one from your emails.”
“So Daphne – in the future, print hard copies, keep a notebook, and don’t let technology interfere more than it has to.”
Daphne got her computer replaced, and got back to work. But her drama made me review how I write and how I save my work. And I tried to take my own advice.
I do have a notebook and scribble incessantly. I do write a lot by hand. In fact The Book of Zev was 880 plus hand written pages which boiled down to almost five hundred typed pages and the final draft was just under three hundred.
I did realize that I hadn’t printed out my new work, and so I have committed to doing that at the end of each work day. I do back up to both a cloud service and to an external hard drive regularly, and will continue with that.
What bothered me was not Daphne’s computer going on the blink, it was her blind dependence on the computer, i.e. “If my computer’s not working, I can’t write my book.” In the “olden days,” many books were entirely written and revised by hand.
When I teach writing at NYU, I always suggest keeping a journal or notebook and sketching out scenes by hand because there’s an emotional quality that is different than when typing.
I often do a first or “zero” “ draft of a scene by hand, with the personal “permission” that I do not need to re-read my scribbles; further, I can just trash them and go to the computer. This is an amazingly effective technique because the computer revision is just that, a revision, and then the typed draft is far better than most first attempts.
To me, putting pen to paper at some point in the writing process is not optional. Something different happens to your brain, and the work feels more emotionally accessible. Try it, and see what you think. It’s especially good when you have a huge amount of material to cover.
For example, I am working on the third act and there’s a big chapter with several scenes and rotating characters. I will pull out my notes, and then organize them by rereading and adding things by hand as I go. This will take a couple of days before I can truly see the point I want to make, and only then will I take a stab on the computer.
Daphne got her computer back a week later, but by then she was addicted (in a good way) to the feeling of writing on paper, and her work and output has increased tremendously. So this traumatic event became a triumph, though I feel sure someone in her novel will experience a similar event later.
Write by hand! Back up your work! Print a hard copy as you go along!