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Why writers won’t surrender to the electronic paper trail

By Harriet Staff

Besides reading James Somers’ essay in The Atlantic, you can play back and review the entire process of writing it here. Long before word processors overwrote each step on the way to a final product, T.S. Eliot’s meticulous “versioning” of “The Waste Land” allowed scholars to peer into the writer’s process when all of the drafts, notes, and excised portions were published after his death. Had only the finished copy survived, the influence of Ezra Pound would never have been apparent.

Some of Eliot’s typescripts had marks all over them, marks which were known to be the notes of Ezra Pound, Eliot’s champion in the U.S. and a well-known literary critic. He had made massive changes to the original manuscript. Example: that famous opener, “April is the cruellest month,” used to be buried under a section some hundred lines long before Pound cut the whole thing. All told his edits shrunk the poem in half. As a result it became more cryptic, rhymed less, and in some ways mutated into a bleaker, more biting critique of the modern world.

Which is to say that Pound completely transformed “The Waste Land.” And the scary thing is that we might have never known—we might have lost our whole rich picture of the poem’s creation—had Eliot not been such a bureaucrat, typing up and shuffling around so many snapshots of his work in progress.

Software like the kind Somers used to record his progress on these paragraphs exists. We have the technology to rebuild a poem—that is, if authors were willing to use it. Having that capability probably felt intuitive to the software developers who built programs like Etherpad and other text versioning tools. Writing code still requires drafts and revisions. In their case, however, the programmers need to be able to find their way back if something goes wrong or doesn’t work as intended.

That’s because code is so fragile, and simple changes can propagate in complex and unpredictable ways. So it would be stupid not to keep old versions —i.e., versions that worked—close at hand.

Writing is different. A writer explores, and as he explores, he purposely forgets the way he came…

…No need, then, to drop so many breadcrumbs along the way. Especially when such a trail could do more harm than good. Readers could use it to find places where you massaged the facts; they’d be able to see you struggle with simple structural problems; they’d watch, horrified, as you replaced an audacious idea, or character, or construction, with a commonplace.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010 by Harriet Staff.