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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Maybe Nothing For Posterity

There was an article in the NY Times about how archivists are trying to figure out how to preserve the electronic files of writers such as John Updike and Salman Rushdie. This raised some discussion on one of my writers loops and one of the topics that came up was how writers can't stop fiddling with stories. You see, no story is ever done, it's simply published--to paraphrase some famous writer whose name I can't recall.

I can tell you what it's like for me. This idea comes in--it's new, it's shiny and perfect. It sits in my head, glowing like a beacon as pieces fall into place. If it starts with the characters, then it's the plot that starts coming in or smaller details about the hero and heroine. If the idea is triggered by a plot idea, then it's the characters who start coming in or finer details about the story. Eventually, scenes start to arrive. I'm not a visual writer--I rarely see scenes--but I hear words. I hear the characters talking to each other, I hear their internal monologues and it is awesome!

But then the day comes where it's time to actually put words down on the computer. At first, I might not notice it, or if I do it's in some distant way, like I can revise this to match my vision. But the truth of the matter is that no matter how much we revise, how much we tweak and rewrite and tinker, the written story never reaches the shiny perfection that was in my head when the idea arrived.

It's not only me. Every writer who I've heard talk about this says the same thing--reality does not match their vision.

Maybe it's because there is no way to meet the shiny perfection that's in our heads before we start writing. Maybe there's no way that mere words can convey everything we see and hear in our heads.

It presents an interesting issue for archivists, to bring it around to the topic. I fiddle with files after I send the book off to my publisher. I can't help myself. Sometimes I fiddle with stories after they're turned in, revised, and edited. Not much and not often, but still it happens. So the files on my computer aren't necessarily exactly like any other version anyone else has seen. Not that anyone will ever be interested in my process, but what about other authors? I can't be the only one that fiddles and this must have implications for historical record.

Of course, electronic data doesn't last as long as acid-free paper, so the entire thing might be moot. All the data might just disappear some day.