Five…worst literary losses

Last year, I taught a term of creative writing. Ten weeks. Intensive stuff. At the end of the term, I said to my students that I was going to tell them something very important about writing. Maybe the most important thing they’d ever hear. Were they listening? This was it:


They laughed a little. Of course they backed up their work! Like, duh. So perhaps the fear of lost data has finally percolated into our collective unconscious, like the way we jump when we see a spider. But I still get a shudder when I see someone bandying about a USB stick. Those things need to go the way of floppy discs. They blow up. They get put through the wash. They get eaten by dogs. Likewise, laptops expire (four in four years for me…I pound ‘em hard). Hard drives get corrupted, screens become detached, occasionally you drop them and/or spill a pint of water over them. Or they get stolen out an open window or out of your bag. So back it up! Dropbox is your new best friend. Download it onto your computer and/or phone or tablet, and you’ll always have everything with you, plus a copy floating in the ether (I’m not really sure how this works). Better yet, email the work to yourself every day. Put a post-it on your computer saying: BACK YOUR WORK UP, YOU EEJIT. Then you will never again wake up in the middle of the night strangled by the panic that you might have left your memory stick on the bus.

Oddly, I never worry about the fate of the hard-copy notebooks I use to scratch out my first drafts. Maybe because no one would steal a flowery notebook filled with writing so bad it looks like a Soviet-era cipher. Maybe because I play a game with myself where I can write the first draft by pretending it’s there, looking through it like a Magic Eye picture. Really I should take a salutary lesson from these sorry tales of literary loss over the years:

  1. ‘Oh you mean that old bundle of papers? Yeah, I burned that. That was OK, right?’ Many’s a literary gem has met a sorry end on the flames. Lucky for us this is most unlikely in these days of waning fuel and gas fire, but back then the fate of Samuel Johnson’s first dictionary (as Blackadder viewers know) was a real danger. Thomas Carlyle famously sent a manuscript to John Stuart Mill, whose maid then put it on the fire. Lesson – don’t annoy the staff, dude. Manuscripts of VS Naipaul were also taken out of storage and burned, mistaken for accounting archives (ouch!)

2. ‘Please take all personal belongings with you when you leave the train.’ A striking number of works have been lost on public transport. Jilly Cooper lost the first draft of Riders on a bus, and it took her fourteen years to try it again. TE Lawrence lost part of his epic work at Reading station (he’d have enjoyed the irony there, I bet). At one point, all of Hemingway’s work to date was stolen from a train his wife was travelling on. Lesson: Never trust anyone else with your work, especially if you’ve been busy eyeing up other Parisian laydeez on the sly.

3. ‘I hate you so much right now.’ Ever given a thought to who might manage your work after you die? Well, there’s a reason they call them ‘executors’, because it turns out they can’t keep their grubby mitts to themselves when it comes to passing judgement on your work. Be prepared to have things radically altered and/or destroyed. Ted Hughes made big changes to Sylvia Plath’s last great collection of poems, and burned one of her notebooks. William Blake’s executor also destroyed much of his writing. Lesson: do not pick as your executor someone who hates you.

4. ‘We tried to call but you were out.’ It’s not just nowadays you can’t trust Royal Mail. With an estimated half a million pieces of post going missing every year, never ever trust your only copy to the mail. A novel of Mary Shelley’s, Valperga, went missing this way on its way to the publishers.

5. ‘Better out than in.’ You could also be especially unlucky and find your work meeting the same fate as a script of Werner Herzog’s. It was apparently vomited on, then thrown out the window of a coach. Lesson: never travel with Werner Herzog. Falling out of coach (maybe a different kind though) was also the apparent demise of a lost concerto by Mendelsson. Keep those windows shut! Or you could also be like Robert Ludlum or Dylan Thomas, who lost their manuscripts on drunken nights out. Thomas lost Under Milk Wood three times while drunk. What a guy.

Take heed, readers. BACK YOUR WORK UP. You will thank me for it one day when your masterpieces are not being lost on trains and/or burned by irritated exes.

One Comment Add yours

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    Yes, I fully agree. Laptops also get stolen. From your very own home. And if you haven’t backed up any but your professional work in a few weeks and say ‘I’m too tired to back it up tonight, will do so tomorrow morning.’, I can almost guarantee that will be the night the burglars come in. And your USB stick breaks down.

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