Are Lost Words Gone Forever?

Quoth Raiders of the Lost Words: During a recent trip to the endlessly burning coal mines of Centralia, Pennsylvania, my laptop slid from my grasp and plunged quite possibly to the center of the Earth.

On the hard drive was a novelette I’ve been working on for years. I still have some fragments, but looking at them fills me with sadness because I don’t think I’ll ever recapture the feeling I had when writing the story in the first place. What can I do?

Well, Raiders of the Lost Words, I of all people understand the fragility of confidence and verve that goes into writing something that matters to you. I can imagine the cold ache that you’re feeling from losing something that you had to coax out of hiding in the first place.

I’m absolutely certain I would not accept the loss with equanimity, which makes me either the worst or the best person to offer advice.

Here are a few things to think about:

  • Let go of the idea that you will “recover” the words exactly or even approximately as they were. Trying to walk those same footsteps again is the path to madness and, worse, dullness. Mourn the story that was, thank it for its visitation, and brace yourself to move on.
  • Neurons are relatively long-lived, and though your brain has been quietly shrinking away since your 40s, you still have most of the equipment that you had while writing the story…especially if you started AFTER then. So the stuff you used to write the thing is still pulsing in your noggin, including those thoughts and feelings.
  • If this was a story you worked on for years, you are already practiced in the art of returning to it again even under changed time and circumstance. It may have been painful or time-consuming, but each time you managed to get back into the flow.

You can do that again, though I won’t insult you with the okey-doke that it’s easy.

If this had happened to me, I would do the following:

  1. Gather everything you have of the story into a draft or folder.
  2. List the places and circumstances where you wrote the other fragments of the story: in the bagel shop, at a conference table at work, inside your velvet-lined writing coffin. It’s okay not to replicate them exactly, but your brain may well remember the mood and “set” from those places if you return there.
    (Don’t get too hung up on that, though. God, I hope you didn’t begin writing this at, like, Two World Trade Center or something.)
  3. Read the last few pages of what you have and write the next logical moment or scene. Don’t judge it, don’t push it, and above all, don’t try to replicate what you had. It’s like recovering from a save game state: your character died and now you’re taking a different (but not COMPLETELY different) path.

Notice I’m not suggesting that you read what you’ve got and decide whether it’s worth going on. The LAST time you were at this point with the story, you DID decide to go on…so trust that judgment.

I know you’re not much for trusting your talent, but know this: you are essentially the same person you were when you wrote this the first time. You still love the same things, speak the same way, feel the same pain, scratch the same itches.

Is it possible that you’re somehow LESS than you were back then? I guess. But there’s a good chance that you’re MORE, too…and that those new parts of you can help.

You kept going from this spot before and you can do it again.