For Monday, February 15, 2016:
“Let me walk through the fields of paper/touching with my wand/dry stems and stunted /butterflies …”
Denise Levertov, ‘A Walk Through the Notebooks’
If you’re a writer and/or poet of a certain age, you likely have or had hard copies – what used to be known as paper – of some of your previous works. Handwritten or printed out, you might have a small library of your poems, stories, books, essays stored in file cabinet and desk drawers, briefcases, portfolios, canvas bags intended for computers, boxes under the bed.
If you’re younger than that certain age group, your works, perhaps all of them, are probably on the computer and on flash drives. Or perhaps you do both – my newer writings are on the computer for the sake of convenience, but my older and oldest pieces are printed out and stored in all those places above.
Every once in a while, especially when I’m between projects of my own or others, I go through the works that I can touch and hold in my hands. There are occasions when I feel the need for that visceral, tangible connection.
Sometimes I need inspiration and ideas, sometimes I want to organize things better and try to combine poetry with poetry, fiction with fiction, etc. Other times I’m looking for something specific, especially if it’s not on the computer and it should be.
I’ve been searching for one short-short story, for instance, that disappeared a year or so ago in the midst of crashing computers. It’s one of those stories that was birthed almost whole all at once and I want to use it in a particular collection, but I can’t find it anywhere. It’s not on any of my flash drives, it didn’t survive the hard drive meltdowns, I can’t find it in my hard copies (but I could almost swear I’ve seen it once or twice when searching for other things) … it’s just not there.
But every time I wander through the fields of paper, I find something. A new project possibility, perhaps, sparked by a word or phrase my eye just ‘happens’ to light upon. A way to make a line in an old poem fresh again. The courage to go back to an old story with the determination to put in the effort to rework and finish it.
This is a good exercise to undertake on occasion. Not only does it affirm all the work you’ve already done over the years – it doesn’t matter that some of it is still in progress or hasn’t moved from its drawer in a while, you still wrote it and that, in itself, is a good thing! – but you might find an old treasure you’d forgotten about that you can re-introduce to the world.
Because I’m of a certain age, I prefer to do this with my library of printed-out works (I sometimes imagine the ancient libraries of vellum and papyrus scrolls as I do so). There’s something so satisfying about the process of seeing the words of my younger self on actual paper (even if the words are ‘dry stems and stunted butterflies’ by now). That makes me terribly old-fashioned, I know, but the computer screen just can’t match that feeling.
I tell myself that one of these days I must sit down to print out my files here and put them into real folders. For one thing, it’s good security. Hardcopy backups ensure that good pieces don’t get lost again. For another, it builds my ‘scroll’ library. That’s always a good feeling, and then there will be more opportunities to wander through those fields of paper.
[Note: Another and easy way to ensure you don’t lose your writings is to email them to yourself, or perhaps yourself and a friend. I learned this too late for that story I’m still looking for, but this has saved other works (and photos) for me. Even if a search through your files’ history comes up empty, you can almost always go back through your email cache. It might take a while, but the effort is worth it.]