Manuscript Slightly Above Water
I have started this piece the night I will submit it. This is not unusual for a blog, nor is it unusual for most of my writing. I surely think about my subject for some time before sitting down to write, but the experience is not exactly Mozart composing a symphony in his head before writing the first note. I’ve got the lump of clay, but then I have to work out if I’m making a bowl or an ashtray. I usually have a couple of false starts, which end up with me on HuffPost or ESPN’s AFC East blog. Even now, I expect I will depart at times for a domestic interlude or two; that trash won’t throw itself out, you know. Upon completing my piece, I allow for some time–a bit of time–to review, during which I might get my clothes together for the next day and floss. Then I look at the time, proofread like a mother, and click a button. Finis.
From this, I could call myself a writer, but that’s like jogging up the steps and declaring “Today, I am a runner.” After half a lifetime of romanticizing the art of words, the profession of writing, and the lives of writers, it doesn’t feel right. My references are very old, though, so I may need to get with the times. Just because there is more written content produced weekly in a Cambridge coffeehouse than the surviving work from Elizabethan England does not mean that any of the newer are any less a writer than the older. And it’s not as if the writers of earlier times would not have preferred newer publishing mediums if they were available. Painstakingly sharpen several quills, set up the ink bottles, roll out some parchment, light the oil lamp, and hope to write enough pages before the plague kills you? Or log on to nanowrimo.org, crack open a beer, and start typing? Even the Venerable Bede would choose Option B.
The deciding factor is not up to any of us who write, of course: It’s what of the writing is read 100, 200, 500 years hence. Whether we published books or online posts, we will be remembered as writers if our work continues to be read. This is always the same, whether Aristophanes or andydick@twitter.
What is different is what challenge each group faces in being remembered, then and now. Every older writer we can think of is, at the very least, lucky. The odds that their work, available only in a paper format, made it to the present has to be part luck. Every 100 years you go back adds onto the unlikelihood that we know who these people are, let alone know their work. How many ancient writers simply disappeared after the fire at Alexandria’s Great Library? How many important works were lost because the last remaining copy was lost during a enemy’s raid, or ignored as languages evolved, or withered away from the ravages of the elements? Even our best known “old” author, Shakespeare, had a chance to be so important because two of his friends thought to collect and publish his work together. Even with this effort, there are plays of his that may have been lost, Love’s Labour’s Won and Cardenio. Whoever finds those plays will make a smashing Antiques Roadshow guest.
My favorite story of luck involves Luis de Camões, the Portuguese author of the epic The Lusiads. I will write much more of his amazing life story in a later post, but suffice it to say that after losing his eye in war, being imprisoned after a duel, and being shipped off to Goa to pay his debt, he wrote one of the world’s masterpieces. Finally heading back to Lisbon, he gets shipwrecked near what is now Cambodia. He manages to grab his manuscript and, holding it above the water, swim to shore. This may not be totally true, but this is totally awesome. Yes, he had to be great to be considered worthy of reading by later generations, but it’s luck that delivered his pages to us at all.
Words and writers now are unlikely to lose their work in such ways, unless every server in all the hosting countries and every motherboard in every laptop craps out at the same time. Our challenge, we who write with any hope of being remembered after we are gone, face a much different problem, our work being lost within so much other work. Who will be able to find the great pieces? Will James Patterson rule the literati of the future if only because so many of his books will be available? Will future scholars uncover some special element about a writer that we cannot conceive of yet, that separates her from the ever-growing crowd?
These are musings of curiosity more than worry (except for the James-Patterson-being-important-in-the-future bit, which scares the hell out of me). Not all great work makes it. Most of us won’t make it. Those of us used to getting instant kudos for our clever lines just need to accept this. But a lot of great work will make it, and our forebears will be better for it. The way to contribute to this is write for the now. Shakespeare wrote plays for his time, for his acting troupe, so he could make a living. Ben Jonson, his contemporary, wrote to be famous. Which one do you know better now? That’s the best lesson for any of us who scribble or type.