Death by 0s and 1s: The Fate of Paper Manuscripts and Drafts

Kevin Stein

The widespread use of computer and digital media is transforming not only how poets compose their work but also how they preserve it, or fail to. Denizens of the digital age, we inhabit an historical moment where much exists only as codes of zeroes and ones. It stands to reason current literary manuscripts will likely be affected by technological innovation in ways we can’t yet imagine, as technology—like rust—never sleeps. Its forward movement continually alters the terrain of art’s creation and reception.

Consider how a poem’s draft comes into being. Over the past three centuries, poets wrote by hand in ink and more recently in pencil. They plodded through however many drafts until the poem seemed to have revealed itself fully and tinkering with its imperfections seemed only to break things in new places. The poem was then said to be done, or as Paul Valéry tartly puts it, was ready only to be “abandoned” by its author. Poets would preserve their work as fair copies to read from in front of a group, should that occasion arise, or to distribute among friends and patrons. Once book publication became the norm, poets’ writing habits followed a fairly standard path from handwritten draft to typeset book copy, including as well the then-new stages of editorial revisions and authors’ proofs.

When the typewriter appeared, poets mostly kept to handwritten first drafts and then moved, when the poem’s solidity seemed to call for it, to the more tangible format of the typed page. Revisions on paper ensued, mostly in pen or pencil, the typed page itself accretively resembling a treasure map of arrows, cross outs, additions, and the like. Most poets developed their own systems of revising the typed page, say, a circled word signifying one thing, a cross out meaning something else entirely. Once sufficient handwritten revisions appeared on the typed page, the poem was retyped, and that clean copy underwent the same process until the poem was “finished.” The arrival of computerized word processing facilitated revision, making it faster and easier to churn out fresh hard copy subject to even more amendment. As always, technological advancement brought with it unforeseen complications to the realm it was intended to simplify. These changes fundamentally altered not only the ways poets pursued their craft but also the means by which their work was made manifest to them and others.

For the last three hundred years, poems have enjoyed a tangible presence as they came into being through the poet’s knuckled hand. No longer. Now many poets skip the handwritten stage altogether and compose directly at the computer’s keyboard. Those that do begin by hand move to the computer keyboard after a single draft, revising everything on the electronic screen as opposed to the paper plane of hard copy. So much of our lives nowadays revolves around a keyboard that this compulsion seems natural if not inevitable. When James Wright took a “typewriting” course at Kenyon College during the World War II years, he was ahead of the learning curve for most of those who did not envision careers in office or secretarial work. Today, most young folks are proficient computer typists by fifth grade, if not to please their teachers then better to accommodate conversations with their pals on AOL’s Instant Messenger.

This writerly (and undeniably technological) decision to forego the handwritten and typewriter stages sends ripples through the creative process. One result is that the poem coming into being has no actual physical reality. There’s nothing penciled on paper, nothing inked blotched and held up to the sun. Nothing to read, write on, curse, crumple, and toss across the room. Now, the poem is merely digital code splayed across a glowing screen, and its reality is perilously momentary. Until the poet clicks “save,” the poem does not possess a lasting (if purely digitalized) form. One wrong stroke on the keyboard or an unexpected power outage may mean the poem exists nowhere but in the writer’s imperfect memory. Zapped into the ether, did it ever really exist? (A similar fate befell this essay, resulting in an afternoon’s worth of lost revisions.) The poem merely flickers, its string of encoded zeroes and ones stored within a memory itself electrically charged and vulnerable to the hard drive’s crashing—until the poet pushes “print.” Then out spews a neatly printed version, not perfect but enticingly perfectible. Still, one wonders how many draft poems live evanescent lives only upon the computer screen, deleted and thus disappeared with a quick click of a key. No draft—digital or otherwise—remains to testify to its brief electronic being.

Even if a version of the poem is eventually printed out, giving it physical reality, much of what was once part of the poem may never show up on that page. The ease of computer revision means so much of what is amended, deleted, or added appears only upon the pixeled screen. Imagine if T. S. Eliot had been a computer poet assiduously reworking his epic “The Waste Land” only on screen. If Eliot had tried ten different words to describe just what kind of month April is before landing on “cruelest,” we’d never know. Even if the poet does choose to run off drafts, accustomed to hard copy as a revision mode, what decides how much revision necessitates a fresh hard copy? While changing a single line break hardly seems worthy of clean paper, how many adjectives replaced, phrases recast, or stanzas deleted in a working draft summon a new copy from the printer? For instance, would James Wright, were he working solely on computer, have simply deleted on screen the excess verbiage from the final line of “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” or would he have printed a fresh copy to consider the revised line’s merits, as he did in typescript, crossing out the offending words (“I seem to have wasted my whole life”)? Most poets, no doubt, develop their own standards for such things, and those who merit the label of literary pack rats might well save more than we readers care to see. But others, say, the tidy or the simply insecure, may print few if any drafts they regard as flawed.

Over time the production of fewer handwritten, typed, and computer printed paper drafts could mean a reduction in what’s typically available among writers’ manuscripts for inclusion in library special collections. That may not be such a bad thing. Not everything in these stratospheric stacks merits keeping. After all, woodcutters heat their homes with their artistic flubs. (I know of a poet who yearly mails his cardboard-boxed “literary papers” to a library that buys them by the pound.) But the loss of permanence afforded by paper also means a concomitant loss of possibility, not only for the scholar but also for the poet. Where would Wright have recorded his characteristic diaristic commentaries on his poems if his working drafts were mainly digital not paper? How would we know he thought this piece to be “junk” and that one he would cut to a “single line” were the true poem to emerge from his elisions? Those notions would possess the impermanence and privacy of daily musings, gone at sunset perhaps, and vanished entirely when he left this earth.

What eventually finds its way into literary archives may well be altered over time. Today it’s the poet’s worksheets, manuscripts, drafts, and letters—maybe even her notebooks and scribbled back-of-the-envelope verses. Given the above, however, one wonders if soon computer diskettes and flash drives will become germane to the notion of literary “papers.” Those media carry new poems and drafts that never made their way onto paper, so they carry invaluable digital cargo. Sure, hard copy drafts may be printed from each for storing in special collections, but what does it mean to take the original and present it in form the author never felt comfortable enough to give it? Maybe the poem as digital object must be retained as such. Of course, similar arguments could be made about typing up and printing a poet’s unpublished, handwritten drafts—something a number of critics, myself included, are guilty of doing. Perhaps what is saved in one form may be regarded as fair game to reproduce in another.

Such talk of hard versus digital copy itself skirts the larger issue of how composing and revising work on computer modifies the poet’s fundamental creative process. Say, for example, does the effortlessness of computer revision actually encourage the poet to do more not less of it? Does the immediacy of computer writing enhance current poetry’s increasing ellipticallity, promoting what Tony Hoagland calls our era’s “skittery” poem unwilling or unable to stay on topic? That febrile discussion is best left for another essay. Suffice it to say we are entering uncharted digital waters.

The ways poems are written and received will evolve dramatically over the next twenty years, so much so that the paper book as gold standard of publication might well be supplanted by some electronic gadget. For that to happen, the gadget will have to claim some of the book’s physical and sensual charms in ways current electronic models don’t offer. Even then, the electronic book may be something warmed to only over generations. I am not yet ready to mourn the book’s imminent demise. Like most, I heard those pitiful shrieks of doom twenty-five years ago on the cusp of the digital age. To this day books and (corporate) booksellers are doing rather well. There’s a sensuous indulgence about the book, a tactile delight uniquely linked to the intellectual and emotional pleasures that give the book itself the caché of a bottle of wine, a cup of coffee, a good cigar. It’s both tangible and other-worldly; it’s portable and yet boundless. There’s something about the book’s scented pages and the texture of its cover, something about its art and copy that has survived even the bookseller’s insinuation of the bar code upon its back cover.

Keep in mind, however, a new machine is now being marketed to the public that allows one to “rip” a hard copy book into digitalized format at the rate of 500 pages per hour. At a cost of $1,600 (and requiring the additional purchase of two $500 Canon digital cameras), the Atiz BookSnap isn’t cheap. And consumers may balk at the unwieldy process currently necessary to capture picture images of book pages and transfer them to a computer where specialized software enables the text to be read. Still, the invention may well herald a digital book Wild West equally fraught with consumer possibilities and outlaws.[i] Think of what havoc similar technology exacted upon the music industry, and it’s not hard to imagine “ripped” books being shared among friends, distributed via the Internet, or downloaded in copyright-busting Napster fashion. If—or perhaps when—the paper book loses its privileged position as both aesthetic creation and object, how might hard copy literary manuscripts fare in this mix? Will hard copy drafts become more valuable as they become more rare? Will libraries, as a result, pursue paper drafts with even more zeal than they do today? Or will poets’ use as well as librarians’ hording of paper drafts and manuscripts fall out of favor, tossed to the technological wayside like the eight-track player, anachronistic and shamefully old-fashioned? If so, the current era’s obsession with saving paper manuscripts may well be notable for its brevity as much as its intensity. Paper drafts are going unborn daily in each poet’s sunwashed study.

We should remember that not all poets are inveterate savers. Some just toss away their drafts and worksheets as a matter of habit. It’s either cleanliness or privacy at work. If the latter, those poets probably regard their papers to be as private as their privates, things meant to be seen by intimates only. For example, among the several thousand Wallace Stevens items housed in the Huntington Library, no worksheets are to be found. Stevens may have been both cleanly and private. Whatever the case, the current burgeoning of literary manuscript holdings faces an approaching challenge and redefinition. Scholars and librarians must learn to recognize manuscript materials among the new media blink-blinking in the digital blue. Given poets’ changing work habits and technology’s evolving means of creation, those things we now think of as draft, worksheet, and manuscript may fade like stars at sunrise.


[i] One indication that awareness of this technological advancement has ventured beyond the pages of techno-periodicals and even consumer-oriented computer magazines is this: The topic has breached the pages of the mass circulation, coffee table weekly Newsweek. See Steven Levy’s largely unflattering review of present BookSnap technology, “Rip This Book? Not Yet,” Newsweek 18 February 2008, p. 24. As Levy suggests, “[T]he very existence of a consumer book scanner is one of those early warnings of turbulence to come.” The BookSnap’s inventor, Sarasin Booppanon, 28, of Thailand, envisions use of such scanners eventually to become humdrum and widespread. The scanner will enable consumers to “digitize their own library” and carry it with them—say, on a beach vacation. While such innovation would surely make less unwieldy the current back-breaking effort of moving one’s books from apartment to apartment, old home to new, it also heralds changes in the ways one regards and interacts with future versions of the “book.”

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