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Published:November 19th, 2009 08:36 EST
What happens to a writer's notes in cyberspace?

What happens to a writer's notes in cyberspace?

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

Joelle Biele in the November-December issue of The American Poetry Review offers a fascinating examination of the papers of poet Elizabeth Bishop.

She explores with great discernment the cross-outs, emendations, drafts, notes and indecisions evident in the paper trail from poet to press.

At the same time I have been reading Camus, A Romance, by Elizabeth Hawes, in which Hawes describes the Camus papers and the construction of the Camus archive at the Bibliotheque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence. Reading about his daughter Catherine`s assiduous efforts to open his papers to scholarship, I keep wondering how much will be lost if the inhabitants of cyberspace fail to take precautions to preserve their correspondence and notes.

So much has happened since the death of Camus in an automobile crash in 1960 and Bishop`s suicide in 1979 " hot-type typography supplanted by photo-offset and now digital typesetting, the typewriter forsaken for the word processor, then the computer, and now laptops and even smart phones. Correspondence has evolved (some would say devolved) from handwriting and typescript to e-mail and text-messaging.

How will future biographers and archivists research the evolution of a writer`s oeuvre given this absence of paper? Not that digital communication has by any means reduced paperwork, as once promised. But if a writer`s process disappears into cyberspace how will we be able to reconstruct its history?

Until recently a writer`s papers provided a kind of medieval rutter by which we could navigate through the writer`s life. We could see who and what had influenced the writer as if these influences were landmarks recorded in a rutter. But now these rutters are endangered.

Morally, there is a case to be made that a writer has a right to be judged by what he chooses to allow into print and nothing more. This was largely the position of such writers as Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov, although their heirs did not always abide by their wishes.

The heirs, too, had moral decisions to make. What did they owe to the writer and what did they owe to his audience, to posterity, and could the two be reconciled? Moreover, the job of the conscientious heir is complicated if the artist fails to leave adequate resources to care for his work.

Is cyber communication now making those decisions for us? True, digital records can be kept on disks, but, like paper archives and microfilm, they deteriorate over time. So what will a cyber archive look like? Will the research that can be undertaken in it equal the research that can be undertaken, say, in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin or at The Schlesinger Library at Harvard?

It seems to me there is little doubt we will be able to archive cyber communications, but I keep thinking about the many ways writers write. For example, I write almost everything in notebooks. I then transcribe from my notebooks to the computer, refining, emending, adding, editing as I proceed. But those notebooks tell a great deal about my state of mind. Sometimes my handwriting is measured and stately, sometimes there are flourishes, sometimes palpable cringes, suggesting perhaps a great deal of mental processing had already occurred before I took pen to paper. Sometimes the notes are berserked, crazy, hard even for me to decipher, suggesting that I had scrambled to capture fleeting thoughts, that my mind had been racing at the moment I started writing. Sometimes the cramped handwriting suggests uncertainty, defensiveness. It would be difficult for me to perfect the work if I had only digital notes to fall back on. My choice of a type font tells me next to nothing compared to the subtle nuances of my own hand. Even my choice of notebook on a particular day in retrospect provides an invaluable clue as to my intent, helping me to decide if I had gone astray or won my mark. Sometimes, over time, the work conceals its original impulse, and the handwriting or marginal notes may help me to rediscover it and put the work back on course.

Then there are the cross-outs, the loops bypassing lines to connect seemingly disconnected thoughts. There may be circles around words, suggesting I had not been certain of their rightness. There may be Kandinskyesque doodles,suggesting . . . you got me!

The slant of the line may indicate a mood. Marginal notes may suggest something I mean to do, a reminder to revisit certain lines or stanzas.

There may even be numeric notations, indicating I was trying to decide on a certain rhyme scheme. Or, more enigmatically, sometimes numbers just come to mind and I have no idea what they mean.

Some writers begin on typewriters and computers, some dictate into recorders. In each case the archivist, biographer and literary detective is confronted with a particular set of challenges.

I love calligraphy. I am influenced by the shape of letters and numbers, by their variations and juxtapositions. I learn from my own notebooks. They are not mere conveyances or bridges from impulse to settled work. They are in fact moments to be revisited, lives to be relived. And I`m quite sure that many researchers feel this way.

Will this excitement in original notation be lost in the cyber age? I think the question is more urgent than the similar question that must have been raised when papyrus and parchment gave way to the bound book and calligraphy gave way to moveable type, however much the mechanical press must have threatened calligraphers.

How will future research into the writing process be conducted? It would seem that the Internet would make sourcing easier, more discoverable. But if we can no longer study the writer`s hand, where will we find clues as to his state of mind, his impulses and emotions? What will literary forensics look like in the cyber age? I am not fearful, just curious. Meanwhile, I pack my notebooks in boxes.


Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.  

He worked as a reporter Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.