Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Paper Hoarder

Last week I boxed up several old drafts of a manuscript and sent them back to the author. The book was finished now—in the bookstores—and we didn’t have any use for the various versions.

The pages were worn down and bound by heavy rubber bands. Notes from the editor, copyeditor, and author went every which way on the pages. Pencil marks were smudged. The manuscripts were pounds of work put into the book. I wondered where this box of bundled paper would end up. The author’s attic or basement? Either way, it was a rarity – most authors are fine with me recycling or shredding the pages. It’s the finished book that really counts.

Now I’m not so sure. Earlier this week, Sam Tanenhaus in The New York Times described John Updike’s meticulous habit of keeping all of his writing drafts, correspondence, and notes. Updike set aside a record of everything, and organized it all in his house in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. A year and a half after his death, the archive will now be housed at the Houghton Library at Harvard. The library archivists predict it will take two years to catalog almost 170 boxes. Tanenhaus spent a few days looking over the material and discovered that the highly prolific writer was constantly rewriting, reworking, and researching his material. For Updike, who spent most of his life in that house near the Massachusetts shore, the archives document his life. They say writers live in their heads. It is just the writer and the page. Is this sentence right? Will this make sense to anyone else? Those scratched out notes, the handwriting on the sheet of paper, tells us a lot about a person, especially when that person is mostly alone all day long.

Most authors are happy for me to throw out their old manuscripts. If anything, it’s a sign that the work on the book is truly complete. They may be out on publicity tours or waiting for reviews, but the writing—the real work—is done. A box of old drafts will just sit in that same box it arrived in and gather dust in a corner. But after learning about Updike’s archive, it seems ideally all authors would keep their manuscripts. To be sure, most writers don’t expect their material to be archived anywhere. And who has the space for all of it? But even if nobody ever went through the drafts, even if no library ever wanted it, you could at least know it’s there. I’ve never written a book before, but I imagine, going over your old notes and drafts would be like going through an old photo album or yearbook. It seems you’d remember every cross out, every error, every thought and be glad you finished it.

1 comment:

  1. One of the sad facts about the digital age is the loss of these paper trails. I have folders filled with drafts and correspondence related to the children's books I published in the 1990s. The editorial letter I'm expecting to receive soon from my agent for my first novel will arrive electronically, as will his notes in the text. And any changes I accept or reject will be lost in the touch of a key. Should I print this stuff out?