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On the burning of manuscripts in the digital age

When we talk about burning books or manuscripts, we usually think in terms of a Nazi-like, Fahrenheit 451-ish circumstance of repression and censorship. But there’s a venerable and remarkable tradition of writers burning their own manuscripts, or expressing a desire to burn them, or talking about the value of burning them. Think Kafka (burned most of his life’s work) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (burned his poems before becoming a priest). Think Umberto Eco, who once said that “later in life good poets burn their early poetry, and bad poets publish it.” Think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, whose first draft was burned either by Robert Louis Stevenson at the urging of his wife Fanny or, according to some versions of the story, by Fanny herself because she thought it either artistically unsuccessful or so horrifying that it would ruin his reputation.

But what becomes of all this in the age of digital manuscripts? In a recent essay, Nick Ripatrazone offers an interesting meditation on the long tradition of manuscript burning — especially by writers themselves, but also at the hands of others — and its enduring value:

I’ve only burned one manuscript — the first draft of my first attempt at a novel. I had kept the printed pages in a cardboard box in the garage, deluded that I might return to them years later and finally discover why agents weren’t interested. Instead the pages sat there and collected sawdust and grass clippings. When my wife and I bought a new house, I decided to get rid of the box. I took the first twenty or so pages to the fire pit in our backyard. That night we roasted hot dogs and their oils dripped on my first chapter.

That was years ago. Now, like so many writers, most of my manuscripts live exclusively on my computer screen. Burnt manuscripts seem outdated. They belong in the days of typewriters. Yet writers are no less wracked with self-doubt, anxiety, and frustration than they were in earlier generations. We might not tear our terrible pages out of the typewriter, but we are still often unhappy with what we create.

The emotions that have led writers to burn manuscripts will never disappear. All that has changed is our medium. When I hate a story that I’ve written, I move it to a folder labeled “Writing” on my desktop. Then I drag it to a subfolder labeled “Old Work,” and let it sit there. Grow digital moss. Become forgotten. Yet that action is like stuffing old sneakers into a closet rather than throwing them in the trash. Part of me hopes that the story will be recycled; that a character or even a sentence will migrate into some later work.

If you burn your only copy of a manuscript, you are making a statement: it’s over. There’s simply not as much drama moving a file to the trash bin of your computer as there is watching a conflagration smother your words. So here’s my advice to contemporary writers. Print a copy of that story you hate. Drag the file to the trash bin and make sure the file is permanently deleted. Then take that printed manuscript to a fireplace, or better yet, a bonfire. Set it aflame. Watch the paper blacken and wrinkle. Sometimes we need to burn our pasts, literary or not, to move forward. Trust that your words and secrets are safe, clouded in smoke, soon to become part of the sky.

Full text: “Burn after Reading: On Writerly Self-Immolation

Orson Welles on Chartres Cathedral, authorship, and the purpose of human existence

“And this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole Western world, and it’s without a signature: Chartres. A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked radish. There aren’t any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand, choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish.

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced — but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

— Orson Welles, F Is For Fake

(A hearty thanks to Greg at The Daily Grail for the welcome inspiration/provocation to post this.)