Destruction and Loss

I am obsessed with stories of lost or destroyed writing—everything from Hughes burning Plath’s diary to the burning of the library of Alexandria to the loose manuscript pages blowing every which way in the wind at the end of Wonder Boys. I have a “destruction of writing” folder going in my files—not far from “Donald Barthelme” and “workshop etiquette,” for no good reason—and I can’t wait to read Stuart Kelly’s The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You Will Never Read. I am hoping, actually, that that book makes my folder obsolete, and serves as a more complete compendium than I could ever hope to assemble of anecdotes like this one:

‘The first stuff you write doesn’t mean a damned thing. I had one of the best newspaper jobs in Europe, writing under two different names with two salaries and two expense accounts, and when I had saved enough money to quit the newspapers and take a chance on fiction, I wrote for two years and didn’t sell a damned thing. I kept sending them off and when they sent them back they wouldn’t even call them stories. They called them sketches. Then when I left Paris I had all my stuff in my suitcase. My wife lost the suitcase somewhere on the way and I never did get it back. At first I couldn’t realize what had happened. I had lost two years’ work, and once I write a thing and get it the way I want it I forget about it and can’t remember it afterward. I didn’t realize it then, but that was the most fortunate thing that could have happened to me, because now the critics don’t know what I wrote first and they can’t trace my development. It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.’

—from Arnold Samuelson’s With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba

The last two sentences appear to be quoted quite frequently on the Web; the entire paragraph—which contextualizes the quote such that the reader now knows who “they” are (which, to my mind, is much more interesting than a vaguely paranoid and misanthropically generic “they”)—I was only able to find at the ‘Times, on a page originally published in 1985. (I love it when dated items that predate the existence of the Web are republished on the Web. It makes me wonder, with optimism and trepidation, how the words we are writing now will appear years from now? If our words will, in fact, continue to exist?)

Note also: Garrison Keillor’s own story of lost pages in his preface to Lake Woebegon Days—”The lost story shone so brilliantly in dim memory that every new attempt at it looked pale and impoverished before I got to the first sentence”—and Keillor’s (parodic) note on the similarity between his and Hemingway’s experiences in this regard, here; scroll about a third of the way down the page.