The Not Writer, Part 5: I Had It Destroyed

I’m a New Media guy, and as such I’m heavily biased in matters digital. I feel that in the 21st century, in which a common telephone can have enough storage capacity to contain all the text in even the greatest public libraries on Earth, when you can have Internet access every moment of the day, when you can search through the totality of the datasphere in seconds, there’s no reason at all why any text should ever be deleted.

When someone tells me “I couldn’t make this story work, so I deleted it,” I see fucking RED. Well, a little red. Carmine, I think, or somewhere between scarlet and vermilion.

This rage isn’t even aimed at the Not Writer specifically, I know plenty of Writers who do it, and they shouldn’t. Modern word-processing software, on the desktop and on-line, offers ‘versioning’ technology that allow easy roll-back of changes so that any section you removed can still be retrieved. With that in mind, it’s actually more effort to permanently erase something than to simply store it somewhere out of sight and mind. So why do so many still insist on erasing material that doesn’t please them?

The habit, I believe, stems from a desire for purity, a loathing of pollution. The Not Writer feels this more keenly than a Writer — in fact, the Not Writer believes that this very trait, this particular brand of perfectionism, is what makes him a writer.

Not so, says I.

We would all love for our every written word to be a work of genius, for our every keystroke to contribute toward le mot juste, and the Writer, often, takes pains to maintain this illusion outwardly at least. But he knows, in his heart, that he’s a liar. He knows that his studio isn’t a pristine collection of magnificent canvases in a clean, airy space, but rather a dingy attic crammed with splotched and ruined scraps of sketchbook paper and cardboard and spiders.

There are no shortcuts, there is no straight path from a blank page to a brilliant story. There’s an explosion of prose (an ‘exprosion’, as the Chinese call it), after which the Writer steels his nerves and hacks away at this jungle with a blunt machete and a bloodthirsty rage. The Writer rinses and repeats.

This is another crucial difference between a Writer and a Not Writer: the Writer knows that he’ll have to write ten words for every one that finally goes out. Outlines, notes, revisions, excisements — none of these contribute to the word count, some of them actually diminish it, but all of them contribute, ultimately, to the quality of the work.

And what do you do with the offal? The machete-clippings and other trash? Into the furnace, say some, so you can keep your workspace clean — bollocks to that, says I! Keep it. Tuck it away somewhere out of sight, sweep it under the carpet, just be sure you can find it if you need it.

I used to keep a folder on my computer (now synced online, natch) that I called the Mortuary. All my unfinished, hopeless story snippets, excised chapters, rejected character outlines and sci-fi tech ideas went in there. No organization, no systematic filenames, just a big roughly chronological jumble of files that I could, if needed, search through to remind myself of one idea I’d once had that I might actually be able to use now.

Stupendous is the number of plot points, characters, names and even whole paragraphs that I cannibalized from previously-discarded ‘waste’. It’s magnificent! Free creativity, and nobody can accuse me of plagiarism — unless a vengeful Past Alex travels forward through time to sue me, of course. But his passport would be out of date, and under Dutch law I could therefore have him executed, so that’s not too big a deal either.

So there’s your contradictory perspective on words, to Not Writers and Writers alike. Like the Cybermen, the credo must be ‘delete-delete-delete’ to pare down your sprawling exprosion to a decent, tight little story — but the definition of ‘delete’ must include ‘save somewhere’. There’s no such thing as writing too much, you can always revise and remove, and the waste stands a good chance of being usefully recycled some day.

– Alex F. Vance