It’s not something that has kept me awake at night, but judging by the number of cautionary tales going around that speak to such fears, there are writers who worry about losing their manuscripts. The stories about losses are passed on with regularity. Are they designed to elicit a frisson of horror at the possibility?
There’s the one about Ernest Hemingway’s wife losing the manuscripts of all his unpublished short stories at the Gare to Lyon on her way to meet him in Switzerland. Train stations are obviously dangerous places, because T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) left the manuscript of ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ in the cafe at Reading station and it was never found. J.M. Falkner at least got on the train. But he got off after travelling from Durham to Newcastle without the fourth novel he was working on.
This could never happen in the new digitally-enhanced world. Manuscripts are saved and backed-up on hard-drives and sent up to iClouds, aren’t they?
Not always! I can’t be the only one left who writes by hand, who can literally be described as ‘penning’ a story? For a time, one copy exists, flimsy on paper. Getting the words into the computer is miles down the track. A recipe for disaster. Or so I have been forced to consider.
Rereading Nam Le planted the seeds of doubt. I read his award winning collection ‘The Boat’ (2008) when it first came out and blithely went on with life. This time round, the short story ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’ left me with the image of his story in flames.
The Nam of the story, the fictional ‘I’, writes on a Smith Corona typewriter, which seems odd in a contemporary setting. This piece of equipment is like Chekhov’s gun:
If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there (From Gurlyand’s Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov, in Teatr i iskusstvo 1904, No. 28, 11 July, p. 521).
The typewriter has to be part of the plot. Any manuscript produced on it has to play itself out. And sure enough, Nam’s Vietnamese-Australian father visits, tells his story of coming to Australia and once his son has written (typed) the story – ‘It was a good story. It was a fucking great story’ (p. 170) – the father takes the pages and burns them. Horror – to add to all the emotions listed in the title of this story about the story.
This clearly comes back to the issue of who owns a story, but as this is Nam Le, there are more depths. And the story is also funny, in a dark way.
I did lose a notebook which had a possibly passable poem in it, but I got to write a blog about the loss, so swings and roundabouts. I had never imagined a scenario where anything bigger (like the novel I am working on now) goes up in smoke.
Even now I can let my imagination free with some equanimity. Because, is it a writer’s worst nightmare really? The loss of words on a page are nothing to the father’s loss as he leaves his war torn country, boards a small boat and seeks asylum across the ocean.
The image: an image of flames to lose yourself in…