21 August 2008

Welcome to the Death Star

There’s a moment early in the first Star Wars movie when Darth Vader invites Princess Leia to look out the window, whereupon he blows up her home planet. Although I can’t be certain, I suspect that my face may have reflected Leia’s expression on two occasions in my life: in June, 2001, when I accidentally erased every document on my computer, including an entire novel; and yesterday morning, when my computer crashed for no apparent reason.

Such incidents are disturbing to anyone, surely, yet to me, as a writer, they’re especially upsetting. How technology — how my life — has developed to such a point that I can write so much without leaving a trace, is anyone’s guess. But there you have it. The very idea of writing with pen and paper inhibits my creativity now. (To say nothing of the difficulty of pursuing a work in progress without being able to see any of the prior chapters.) I’m dependent on my brave little laptop for so many things, and I was reminded yesterday how little there is in Beynes to divert me that doesn’t require the use of the computer. Yes, yes, there are books and radio, there are the pleasures of cooking and of watching the grass grow — but that’s about it.

Better back up those files, Mose.

It’s to be remembered that, regardless of the technology used, writers have been losing manuscripts by any means possible for as long as there have been writers. A sudden gust of wind or rain, or even the tiniest conflagration will damage ink, paper and parchment; Moses tried using stone tablets, and you know what happened to those. The writer’s inspiration evaporates easily, and every minute risks the equivalent of the knock on the door that stunted Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan.” Even once a work is published, it’s not safe, as a recent re-viewing of The Name of the Rose reminds me.

Yet modern digital technology is so fast-moving, the consequences so great of gestures so small, that the writing seems more fragile than ever. In 2001, my single keystroke wiped out an adult lifetime’s work, and though other technology exists to recover files, I spent an entire year getting my novel on its feet again. During that time, the market for fiction dried up, not least to other advances in digital information technology, and my book remains unpublished. Had not my finger slipped, who knows what career I might have now? For all we know, I might have gotten in under the wire. In a sense, I’ve never recovered from the loss.

Thanks especially to my brother, I’ve gotten more diligent about backing up files. Very little of the current novel would have been lost yesterday. But repairing a computer can take a very long time in this country: most often, Paris merely ships the wounded Mac to Holland, where the real repairs are performed, and the customer is obliged to muddle along without a computer for six weeks or longer. I had to contemplate pushing back every deadline I have. That’s not merely a discouraging thought but a series of them, grisly dominos that keep toppling down.

I persist in writing because, I tell myself, I do not have a choice. It is the will of destiny that I should write. That’s a lofty sentiment, and sometimes very cheering, but once one admits the possibility of destiny’s will, one must admit that it could be exerted in other ways, too. It’s no good believing in a God who makes bunnies and kittens if you do not also accept a God who makes tsunamis that kill tens of thousands of humans at Christmastime; otherwise, you don’t truly believe. Yesterday I found myself wondering whether the same destiny that wills me to write might not also will me to fail. Even if the will in question belongs not to a deity or to any other external supernatural force, I am screwed, since the will must therefore be my own.

These are the things you think about, when your computer crashes. It is easier to blame technology.