If you were a jeweller who’d just had the best idea for a commission ever, and then found that your diamonds were missing, what would you do?
Worse still, if you were a writer who’d committed the best words ever to the page, and then found those pages lost and un-recoverable, what would you do?
The subject of Lost Words (and words really are diamonds to me – anyone who knows me will tell you how I discover and collect them daily!) resonated for me when I read Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.
Though the novel is Hadley’s fictional account of her marriage to and life with the writer Ernest Hemingway, it is based on true events – and Hadley really did lose Hemingway’s early manuscripts. All of them. And, to this day, they’ve never been found. (Just gets all the ‘why, where and how’ questions going, doesn’t it?!)
It happened at a railway station in December 1922, when Hadley was travelling to meet Hemingway, who was on an assignment for a newspaper. He’d met someone in the business who wanted to see his writing, so Hadley was bringing it to him – and, as McLain tells it, Hadley is so keen to help Ernest that she packs everything he’s written, even the carbon copies (this is back in the day when there was no photocopiers or computer back-up files – haven’t we got it easy, eh?!). On the train, she stows her suitcase and the valise (what a diamond of a word! Its usage, the dictionary tells me, is mainly American and means a small overnight case or bag. Anyhoo...) containing the manuscripts, and goes off to get a bottle of water. (If you’re reading the same copy of McLain as I have, this section is pp 160 – 167.)
When Hadley comes back, the valise is gone.
Just imagine her shock, panic and despair. How stricken with guilt and fear she must have felt, knowing her husband’s beloved work was lost. She searched for it, of course, but it wasn’t found. On she had to travel, knowing she’d have to confess to Hemingway what had happened – and that all his words were lost.
Now, Hemingway’s missing manuscripts are not the only lost literary works in history – there’s also the later and (supposedly superior) draft of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence (he left it in a cafe, and so had to use the first draft as a basis for the eventual book); the more recent example of Jilly Cooper’s only copy of Riders, which she lost on a London bus and then spent 14 years recreating; the Lost Library of Alexandria in Ancient Egypt, which was ‘accidentally’ burned down; and, of course, many more.
But on a more personal level, how would it feel to lose everything you’d ever written, up to that point? How would it feel to lose all the diamonds you’d ever owned – and that you couldn’t get back?
I know how utterly stricken with grief and overwhelmed with the impossibility of recreation I’d feel if I lost everything – thankfully, I’ve not lost everything I’ve ever written, but I have lost some.
When I was 18, I decided to get ‘serious’ about my writing, and reread all my work so far. I excised the good bits and wrote them up in a notebook (I can still see its blue marble-effect decoration, and still feel how its hardback covers felt like a safe inside which my words were entrusted) – and then discarded the rest. I can’t remember if I tore the pages or simply screwed them up, but they’re gone. And so is that damn blue-marbled notebook. I’d hoped I’d stored it in the attic, but when we cleared it out last summer, it wasn’t there. So even the best bits of my early writing (from age 7 or so, to 18) are lost. Absolutely gutting, now that I would like to look back on (and perhaps even cherish) my evolution as a writer.
My latest experience was back in 2008. I came up with the idea for Book One while at university, and saved everything (and I mean everything) I wrote to a recently discovered (remember, I was a technophobe then!) and much lauded device, the memory stick. No one ever told me that they can just, one day, decide to stop working, even though you’ve kept it safely in a pencil case of its own, never tossing it into your huge handbag where it could get scratched against your keys or bashed by your phone. So, post-graduation and determined to get-on-with-it, I put the pen drive into the USB port and...got nothing. At all. Even after 10 tries and lots of huffing and puffing. One of my friends, sensitive to my trauma, gave it to her work’s IT department, but even they couldn’t work magic. All my ideas, prep and research for Book One was gone.
Yet it was the most freeing experience I’d had so far in my writing career. I discovered that, while prep work is important, the very first ideas can get stifled and stagnate; that the early work can be more like a millstone than a godsend; and that to produce a book meant writing one, not fiddling around with files that were a couple of years old. Of course I was crushed at first, but I quickly resolved not to let it stop me: I was going to write the book that I could write now, not the book I’d been beginning on my degree – and the two became two very different things.
I’ve learned from this experience, though: I back up my files on disc, memory stick and send them to a writing-dedicated email address (so that I could access them from any computer anywhere, just in case!). I also know not to believe that the first attempts, the early work, is the best; often, the stuff that comes later, after I’ve mulled over and critiqued the first drafts and tried again with rewrites, is better. Many people say that to write is really to re-write, and though I’d like to look back on my early evolution as a writer, I’m glad that I couldn’t get enmeshed in my first thoughts about Book One, and instead just had to do it.
So, while lost diamonds are problematic, they can also be a way to discover a different jewel – and who wants to have the same bling as everyone else?!