The Virtual Afterlife of Words: Confessions of a 21st Century Writer

gravediggingI confess. I don’t kill my darlings.

I bury them alive.

All those loved and discarded words.

Full paragraphs and partial lines, whole pages and single, unwanted words. I gather them up, and I deposit them into a document that I’ve titled, “Word Graveyard” or “Scrap Pile.” I pile them there, barely a space between one and the other, in a kind of purgatory of the inexpressible. Somewhere between the living and the dead. The spoken and the unspoken. Words banished for being too bland or too bold. Tangential or tepid. Not the right tone or the right place or the right time. I send them to that Other Document, and eventually, under the weight of the words that live on, they are forgotten.  

Or not…   

Because, well, you never know. The next version of the manuscript could call for that brilliant little scene from “Scrap Pile.Spring 2013” or that snappy exchange of dialogue from “Word Graveyard.Fall 2015.” And if it does, I’ll be grateful that I hadn’t completely destroyed the words, and I’ll return – Frankenstein-like – to the Word Graveyard to dig up the words from obscurity. Resurrect them to new life.

But the reality is, I don’t go digging often. Sometimes. But not often.

As one who writes on a computer, I don’t often destroy my words. I don’t have to. I can add, and I can add, and I can add, and all that I add can be magically compressed and hidden out of sight. Thumb drives and external hard drives, Microsoft Word™ Files and Google Folders packed with my Word Graveyards and Scrap Piles and the skeletons of old drafts and outlines and sketches. Half-buried there forever.

(And by “forever,” I mean: until the latest machine can’t open that file anymore…)

I appreciate that the creators of technology have kept our writing spaces looking familiar. Even homey. The Virtual Desktop is called a Desktop. Virtual folders look like paper folders. Virtual pages look like paper pages. Snozzberries taste like snozzberries. But without towers of real paper invading our personal space or the burst seams of expandable folders reminding us of our limits, we don’t really have to confront the physical reality of our work, do we? There are advantages to this, of course. More space. More time. More trees. But the fear that the writing desk has become a fire hazard or the curious smell of something rotten, somewhere under all that paper, does not as regularly prompt the purge that sends us back to the half-discarded words for another look. For the chance to put the words to rest or even to pull a page from the pile and say, “This was good. There’s still something beating in this one.”

I often wonder if my compulsion to create a virtual burial ground and to give it a tangible name – scrap pile, shredder, graveyard, garbage – is an effort to relate to words in a physical way. Occasionally, I print out pages, but not as often as I used to, so weeks may pass without putting a pen to the page to circle and to cross out, to write over and under and in the margins and on the back. Without crumpling and throwing and ripping and burning. All those verbs that happen in real time and space and color. Perhaps artists who move from oils and watercolors to graphic design feel something similar. And filmmakers who once waded through all those squares of their cut footage. The loss of a physical interaction with the medium that also connects us – emotionally, psychologically – to the fragments of our work that we decide to keep and those we cast aside.   

Like all forms of creation and revisions, our methods evolve with the time and the tools. We find our balance, creating new methods and holding onto the old ones. We do what works.

Lately, I’ve started to think of the accumulation of all those virtual files of saved and half-saved words as a kind of modern palimpsest, a manuscript page that has been erased so that it may be reused but still contains the sketch of the original words beneath. Maybe the need to save our words or the pleasure we feel when we use “Track Changes” or “Revision History” derives from the satisfaction of seeing the many layers of our work, one on top of the other. Technology does give us this. All the traces of the original writing and the record(s) of our old choices, still visible beneath.

Yes, the words have been discarded, but they still exist in some ghostly form.

The necessary foundation of what finally came to be.  



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