Gone

I awoke the other morning in a bit of a funk. My head was cloudy and I was on day three of a dull, persistent headache. My weekday morning routine is to quickly clear my inbox of the 50-100 new messages that collect each night, which also serves to wipe my mental slate clean and prepare me for the day. This morning that didn’t work so well and I thought that writing might help clear my brain of whatever it had accumulated during my sleep. I looked at the article that I started the night before and reread the lonely two paragraphs. Ideas began to flow and I poured them out onto my keyboard and into the web editor.

As it often does when I’m in a stream of consciousness writing mode, words become my complete focus, which sends pain and problems to the shadows. This is a really cool place for me. When I’m writing, I feel lighter. My physical self fades and related problems go with it. The world around me dissolves to become a backdrop of muffled sounds and colors—my only reality is my prose. Some people call it being in a zone, but it’s more for me. In this altered reality state, I hear myself speaking in my head and the physical me has one job: Document this talk and don’t miss a word. You never know when the speaker is going to leave or forget what he was saying and just stand there drooling (obligatory old guy joke).

As I documented this latest talk, I noticed that the newly typed content was diverging from the original concept, but I never let this stop me—I always can make two or three articles from this one when I’m done with this writing session. Getting the words down is the important part. Don’t let the creative process stop. Don’t interrupt the speaker. Today’s talk is full of great stuff, or complete crap that I may delete later, but right now it sounds good so just get it written.

Pause. Save draft. Continue writing. Pause. Save draft. Continue writing. It’s an old habit of mine to save every time I pause to think. I’ve always practiced safe writing. It’s a good habit, one that has served me well over the… wait, why is it prompting me to confirm I want to save the draft? Of course I want to save the draft. SAVE ALL THE DRAFTS!

What? The two paragraphs on the screen are what I wrote last night and my newest six or seven are nowhere in sight. No worries; I’ll just go back a page in the browser and copy the text from history. No history. No extra text. Just those two stupid paragraphs from last night. After a few frantic minutes of useless recovery techniques, I had to admit that I screwed up. There was no way out of this one. My bag of technical tricks was empty and my words were gone. Just. Gone.

To a writer, there are few things more heartbreaking than losing words. This loss was the equivalent of a Chuck Norris punch to the gut. I was so devastated, that I closed my MacBook Pro and shoved it in my bag. Then like any good writer who has a big setback, I sulked and texted my wife so I could bemoan my great loss. This inspired writing session was gone and my dull headache and funk slipped out of the shadows to take over my brain. Screw writing. Pop in my headphones, turn on some music, and switch to reading. And sulk. Sulk like a professional.

Now I don’t blame anyone but myself. I rarely only use an online editor and also prefer to have a local backup. I use several apps for writing, but this morning I just wanted to get the words into my drafts folder in case I wanted to continue writing later on a different device. I know better than to play fast and loose with critical data and have been trained to be paranoid about data loss from the first time I typed text into a computer.

Back in the early ’80s, my first experience with electronic storage was on a Pr1me 450 mini-computer. Erie Community College wasn’t the richest school and the terminals available to students were proof. You may not even know what a “terminal” is. Today, we have computers in our pockets and on our wrists that make that college minicomputer look like a calculator. But back then we all had to share a single computer by using several very dumb boxes each with a video screen and keyboard combination to talk to this one smarter box via serial cables or modems.

And forget about the high resolution, crisp, colorful screens of your laptop or iPhone and instead think about a really blurry TV screen with gray glowing text on a darker gray background—you may have seen one of these in a movie or a YouTube video. Now add controls on the back to fix vertical flipping and horizontal skew problems and wrap it all in a chunky, molded case (no idea what material) with a built-in keyboard. They were pretty crap. Flip the switch to turn them on, wait for the screen to warm up. Adjust the brightness and contrast so the text was somewhat legible. Smack the side if the nobs in the back didn’t stop the screen from being jittery and say a prayer that you didn’t have a broken one because terminals were few and students were many.

If you were writing software on these little beasts, you had to understand that even if it turned on, it could as easily die at any moment. You learned to save often or got used to disappointment. Some students didn’t notice that these terminals were gravity cooled with vents on the top and learned by a zap of the screen that blocking the those vents with books and folders led to a terminal terminal. Along with the death of the circuits also went any unsaved typing. When I saw people using the vents as a shelf, I tried to be a good Samaritan and warn them to let the thing breathe. The early days of computing weren’t pretty, people.

When I had time outside of my classes, I spent it writing software on a TRS-80 Model I computer—owned by a friend of my dad’s who I was helping—and learned that microcomputers were as finicky as their bigger brethren. The cassette tapes often failed and the newfangled 5-1/4″ floppies weren’t much better. Always fearing the worst behavior from this magnetic media, I liked to print out my code listing and keep a paper copy as well as making multiple backups of disks. One time I had worked for weeks on a large customer database program written in TRS-80 BASIC and had made two backups in addition to the original disk. I came into the office one night, shoved the primary disk in and it was blank. My code was gone. I grabbed the first backup disk and tried to load it… blank. Panicked and scrambled for the second backup and it too was useless. Weeks of work were just gone.

My hard copy wasn’t recent because I felt there was no need to waste paper since I had multiple disk copies. I thought I was sufficiently paranoid, but that day I learned that I was way too trusting of 1981 technology.

This story does have a happy ending, though. When I first wrote the database program, I was a new computer science student and did a piss-poor job of it. Having to rewrite the whole thing after a few month of programming forced me to rethink it and redesign it completely. I also learned about the concept of offsite backups.

My lost article also might be better when I go back to write it again, but I haven’t felt ready to clean that wound yet. While whining to Judy about this minor disaster, she said, “If you can’t think about the words you lost, why not write about losing it.” Smart lady.

So I did (and you just read it). Maybe I’m a little more ready to go back and finish my other article. Or maybe I’m still sulking.