Carpenters used to seem so lucky. They sweated and got splinters, but they could see the result of their effort. Those of us who pushed paper around knew a stray cigarette ember could char a month’s work into ash.
Doctoral students kept their dissertations in the freezer, surprising anybody who helped themselves to ice. With early computers, we resorted to superstition, saving on various media in various versions. But there was no cheating catastrophe.
“Get chocolate,” my friend Mike hissed when our colleague lost the entire next edition of the faculty newspaper from her primitive IBM computer. Even the sugar could not rouse Mary from her initial shock; she just sat there for a long time, staring at the empty screen. I did the opposite when I lost a five-thousand-word feature, flying into action, throwing remembered phrases onto the keyboard, hysteria rising inside me like a charmed snake.
Nearly always, the new version was better—but you could never persuade yourself it would be. These losses felt cataclysmic; they felt majestically unfair. All that work, just gone?
This is why I admire John Steinbeck. When he was only thirty-four years old, he was nearing completion of the first draft of Of Mice and Men. Then his agent received a letter in which he thanked her for a recent check, dropped an offhand comment about British criticism, then wrote, “Minor tragedy stalked.” He went on to explain that his Irish setter pup, Toby, distressed at being left home alone, had “made confetti of about half” the manuscript. “Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft.” So calm, so matter of fact.
Then Steinbeck added, “I was pretty mad, but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically.” The only punishment he dealt out was a swipe with a flyswatter, because he “didn’t want to ruin a good dog for a [book] I’m not sure is good at all.”
Montaigne intended exactly such a reaction, I suspect, when he urged us toward nonchalance. Nothing should be taken too seriously, especially not oneself. We tend toward drama when our Work is thwarted or destroyed, probably because we are constantly comparing our output to somebody else’s, or to our boss’s expectations, or to our notion of ourselves, so anything that jeopardizes performance makes us crazy. Or maybe we just like having an excuse, pretending that what was destroyed was perfect and can never be re-created. Self-pity is a lovely indulgence. We have been taught to think that we are special, and therefore all our projects are special.
With work, ambition, relationship, “we must go up to the last limits of pleasure,” Montaigne wrote, “but guard ourselves from engaging still further, where it begins to be mingled with pain.” We should not be so precious about ourselves, in other words, so dramatic about our Work.
Such a tricky line. Care too little, and you will produce crap. Care too much, and you will trip on your own clown-shoe ego. Age helps; when you are young, everything has to matter too much, or else the stuff you need to learn will not stick. Now, though, I have leftover overcaring. In the way that our brains still go into lion-stalking-the-savanna overdrive when we hit a traffic jam, I still get too tangled up, too effortful. Steinbeck was so cool.
Did he rage and weep and then pull himself together for this light, wry letter? A writer would think to do that. Or was he really that sanguine? Granted, he also was not sure the book was worth publishing—unless that was a modest demurral to his agent. Usually it is your best stuff that paralyzes you with doubt; anytime you feel breezy and confident, you can be sure it will fall flat. That is why self-confidence is so hard to come by; it keeps being refused.
Of Mice and Men was indeed worth publishing. What I love is that Steinbeck changed the original title, Something That Happened (meant to remind us that no blame should or could be assigned to the horrific accident therein) after reading Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse.” Burns writes, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley”—often go awry.
And so they do. Our work gets chewed up, burned up, waterlogged, faded. John Stuart Mill’s maid thought Carlyle’s manuscript for The History of the French Revolution was scrap paper and used it to light a fire. Missing his new wife, Ernest Hemingway arranged to meet her, and she packed all his work—including various drafts—nothing yet published—and then lost the suitcase.
There is a reason paper artifacts are called “ephemera.”
Now, though, the Cloud has transformed our relationship to physical information, notes Dr. Ron Mallon, director of the philosophy-neuroscience-psychology program at Washington University. “It used to be that a physical copy of your research, say, was extremely valuable. . . . You could lose years of work.” Now, as we send our data into the ether for safekeeping, “the paper can be thrown away, the computer stolen, and it doesn’t really affect our access to the information.”
Which almost seems a shame.
We no longer have occasion to be brave, to at least pretend nonchalance. We have no reason to make a fresh start. When Hemingway first collected his sobbing wife at the train station, he assured her nothing was worth such tears. She told him the suitcase was gone. He assured her he had drafts. And then she had to tell him she had packed the drafts, too. So what did he do? Began writing in shorter, crisper, cleaner sentences, picking up the pace to make up for lost time. And that is what got him published, and that is why we now have so many editions of his work they could never be lost.
We also have Of Mice and Men, perhaps more polished than it would have been if all had gone smoothly. Or, wait. What if Toby never shredded it at all? Or he only gnawed on the edge and got a few corners soggy? Maybe Steinbeck was behind and needed the world’s best excuse.
Something else the Cloud has denied us.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.