Gnashing my teeth every time my words are lost in a computer snafu


By Lawn Griffiths

What writer has not been deflated when something has gone suddenly wrong with the computer and a particular work has been lost?

It is a fist-on-the table moment for me. If a writer works intently through all the elements of the craft — the excitement of having formed an idea, deep thought, a right temper, a devotion of time, choosing the right words, rejecting, rephrasing, rewriting sentences and finally creating it “perfectly” just as he wanted — it can be brutal to find all of that lost in a computer crash or a power outage and a blank screen.

My creativity has gone to waste, in an instant, more times than I want to count. A recent three-second neighborhood power outage or surge caused me to lose a big chunk of a post intended for this blog. I have to get over the loss before I take it up again. I think I hit “save” often, but I didn’t in this case.

Sometimes I totally abandoned the project — a column, an article, a blog post — out of disgust. More often, because I needed to do it, I painfully and painstakingly reconstructed it as best I could. I still had resentment, still grieved for what might have been. What was lost with the writing miscarriage. Rueful, I feel like the second take does not match up. Yes, I know the rule: Store your documents in another place besides the operating system. Make hard copies. Keep dust controlled inside the tower.

I remember times when the computer froze, but the material was still on the computer screen. I scrambled with pen and paper and wrote everything I could from the screen, unable to scroll down to get it all. Other times, I have taken my tape recorder and read the text onto tape, then played it back as one would from a dictating machine. Other times, I read intently what I had on the locked screen, trying to remember it like a picture in my head, so I could recreate it. I have an external hard drive, but I have to intentionally save documents I want in order to protect them. They market computer software that promise that nothing can be lost.

Three years ago, I lost about 35,000 words — part of the text for a book on a service club history. I was so angry with myself, I never took up the reconstruction for four or five months. I had to heal.

In an earlier time, there were other ways our work could be instantly lost. What came out of the typewriter and wasn’t recopied (say with a carbon-copy or photo copy) ran the risk of being lost in a fire, flood or tornado. Or the proverbial dog could eat it.

I have a carbon-copy manuscript for a book I started in 1979 on rural Iowa nostalgia in a safety deposit box at the bank. The original is locked in a steel file at my house — somewhat vulnerable. For good or bad, it is not in a computer file anywhere.

When I was a graduate student in journalism at Northwestern University in 1971, my major term paper for a class was about the history of underground newspapers in America — pounded out on a typewriter. My professor remembered getting it from me, but he lost it. He could not find it. I never had a back-up copy. He gave me a “A,” perhaps out of embarrassment. Maybe the term paper went underground.

A gazillion words are out there in books, magazines, tomes, websites, monuments and iPhones. Some were lost in the cosmos before more than the writer saw them. Like lost books of the Bible or the undiscovered manuscripts of great writers, we can only speculate the contents. We don’t know what’s really been lost.

Can we recover enough after a computer snafu to write things better a second time? Probably, but it hurts.

2 Comments on “Gnashing my teeth every time my words are lost in a computer snafu”

  1. I can still feel the empty hole from the time in college when my backpack had been stolen, along with a significant portion of my writing.

    One of the stories lost was a science fiction piece that had been (up to that point) the one work I had written the most on. I had over 80 handwritten pages, front and back, that I had only managed to transcribe 30 or so pages onto a computer before it was lost. To this day, I have not written another word on that story.

    Many of the other stories, I cannot even remember, but the hole is still there.

  2. My great loss was not words but photos I took in a small village in the Mekong Delta during a military operation. I had used up nearly all of a 36-picture roll of film in my single lens reflex camera and remember thinking that I had captured some important images, perhaps my best to date. I would finish off the roll in the morning and send it for developing. Foolishly, I left my camera with my hygiene gear while I tended to other things, including fine dining on C-rations. When I discovered that the camera had been stolen, I felt grief rather than anger. Although I really liked that particular camera, I did not mourn its loss, because I could easily replace it at the PX. But I would never see those images developed, and that hurt so deeply that I still think brood about it nearly half a century later.

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