As I mentioned in my last post, I’m reading Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. The author, Lesley M.M. Blume, recounts the incident when Hemingway’s wife, Hadley, gathers up all his manuscripts “including his short stories, poetry, the starter novel and all of the carbon copies of these works.” (Emphasis mine. Because that’s the most chilling part–that she took the backup copies as well as the originals.) She packs it all into a valise which then goes missing at the train station, never to be recovered. Blume goes on to say that Hemingway used the incident in a later unpublished short story. What she doesn’t say is that in a posthumously published novel, The Garden of Eden, Hemingway creates a much harsher version. In that book, the character of the wife deliberately destroys some of her writer husband’s manuscripts. Whether intentional or accidental, this sounds like a terrible thing for a writer to undergo. But both in the real life version and the fictional one, that turns out not to be the case. In the novel, the writer, David, was able to reconstruct the entire lost story from memory, and even improve it as he went. In the real life version, Hemingway “came to believe that ‘it was probably good for me to lose the early work.'” Ezra Pound’s counsel was that “memory was the best editor.”
Recently I lost two blog post drafts before I had a chance to save them. Even at the moment of recreating them, I could tell the new versions were better than what I had lost. This doesn’t mean that I would be glad if all my notes and drafts suddenly got wiped out, as it did for a friend of mine whose work was lost in a warehouse fire. What it does mean, is that the writing was there in our heads before it ever got set down on paper or in a computer file. If the physical or electronic copies are lost, the work still exists, right where it originated, waiting for us in our writers’ brains.