Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Words lost inside a machine

The family computer crashed Saturday night. I took it to the Apple Store Monday, hoping they could revive it, but after an hour of working on it, the technician basically called it at 11 a.m.

At the end of his work, he pulled out its non-functioning hard drive and placed it in the palm of my hand. In a soft voice, like a mortician, he told me he would dispose of the shell of my old Mac Mini for me. It's hard to believe that almost all of our family information was contained in the small green, gold-specked rectangle that now fit in the palm of my hand.

I've written a previous post on the danger of relying only on digital storage. And I took my own advice, backing up most of my files on an external hard drive. But there are things I never backed up, like email. Gone are all the messages we've received in the last three years from our children's schools and teachers, from people writing us as a family. There are thank yous and inquiries that I meant to write/send but now I can't remember if I did. Only the small, brain-dead hard disk knows and it is silent, sealed in an envelope.

In the book, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui (a book I find sometimes wise and sometimes silly), Karen Kingston says that floods and other unexpected disasters offer people "wonderful heaven-sent opportunities cocreated with their Higher Self, to give them a fresh start in life." (This passage would be wise if it hadn't been so all-encompassing. A small flood in the basement—maybe. A tsunami that wipes out a village—no.) Maybe my hard disk crash was a way to de-clutter my life of all those emails I failed to throw away, until we had over 1,000 messages in the "Sent" folder alone. 

I know that email is a temporary communication that shouldn't be held on to and that most emails should be deleted within a certain time frame. But I rarely make the time to wade through and decide what is worth keeping and what should be trashed. It's painful to get rid of traces of one's self and one's emails with friends, especially since there is almost no other kind of written communication these days. I still have a 2002 email from a friend who has since died. I can't bring myself to delete it. If it were a letter, I would place it in a box with all my other letters and it would have a definite boundary and time frame. The email gives me  false hope—if I open it, I believe I can hit "reply" and David will write me back.

What is worth keeping? I think we all must ask ourselves this question, through life transitions and moves. It's something writers particularly have to ask themselves. In another passage of her book, Kingston says clutter is "stuck energy" that can "keep you in the past" and "distract you from important things." Are my writing notebooks "stuck energy"? Are my teenage journals keeping me in the past if I rarely pull them out of the filing cabinet? Or are they material for future stories?

Trying to find paper records of things that might have been on the dead hard drive, I sifted through two drawers of old files yesterday and found scraps of paper documenting moments and emotions I had forgotten; a novel I had started that I thought had been lost in the last computer crash (which maybe should have stayed lost); letters from friends in the days before ubiquitous email; files with photocopied research for topics I had wanted to write about; and stuff I now know I no longer need. I threw some of it away but there was such a flood of emotion that came from unearthing my past that I finally had to shut the drawers and walk away. 

I am not ready to edit my life. That's probably one reason I'm not sending anything out to publishers now. I find it difficult to decide what to choose and toss. As a person, I want to think that every moment, every thought was valid. As a writer, I need to be vicious, selective. I still haven't figured out how to let the two peacefully co-exist.

1 comment:

Chandra Garsson said...

So many thoughts come to mind about this somewhat rather sad blog. Oh gosh, the first question is, how does a hard drive die? 'Words lost In a Machine' is a good title, the metaphor continues as you describe the tecnician as a mortician; he almost seemed like a doctor to me, only sadly, there was no reviving the old friend, a machine, a robot, a workhorse. The tech is something of a veterinarian, I guess.The part about saving email hit home, I save the personal emails, they tell the story of a life, in part. All of which calls to mind your wonderment concerning the saving of journals. Surely you know I'm all for it; the further back they go, the better. Yes, write about yourself, you do it so well. And the journals themselves, as well as old correspondence tell the story of your life. It's important for you. It's important for the future.