How can I make my words last?

When we moved from typewriters to computers, it seemed we could finally store what we write in this machine forever. Any time we wanted to read, revise or print out that story or poem or that rough draft of a brilliant idea, it would be here waiting for us. Whatever changes we needed to make could be done with a few keystrokes. No more retyping, no more carbon paper, no more worrying about the house burning down with all those pages of our work inside. If we were smart and backed up our files, they would last forever.

That was a fantasy.

A long, long time ago, about 10 years, I used to back up my files on floppy disks. I carefully made multiple copies that I stored in my car, my storage locker, my day job desk, or, in a few cases, in the safe deposit box at the bank. I remember finishing a novel and handing my parents an envelope bearing the precious files on a floppy. Hang on to this, I said.

Well, you know what? Today’s computers can’t read a single one of these floppies. If the computer actually has a slot to insert a floppy disk—kids, they were rigid squares of plastic with a circle thing in the middle that somehow stored information—it has no idea what’s stored there. The program that produced them is ancient history.

I just plugged in a dozen floppies, hoping to read the contents and store them on my hard drive. One disk offered a tantalizing list of articles, notes, queries and ideas from 2006 and 2007, but I could not open the files. Most of these were articles I wrote for Northwest Senior News. Do I still need them? Have I copied them anywhere else? Do I have all of this in my paper files? I don’t know. In a year, I produce so many text files I can’t possibly keep track of them.

Knowing this could happen, about seven years ago I started storing files on CDs. Luckily my computer still has a CD drive, but it can only read some of the files stored on my CDs. Others do not compute. All the computer is willing to do is reformat the CD, which would erase everything on it.

Knowing that many new computers, including my laptop, do not have CD drives, I triple back up my files these days to an auxiliary hard drive, a tiny flash drive I carry in my purse, and the Dropbox “cloud.” Sometimes I e-mail a copy to myself, just in case. Do I trust any of these systems completely? No. I just pray that if my house gets burglarized or burns down or my computer dies without notice, I will still be able to locate and use the files I need the most.

I have hundreds of paperback books in boxes ready to sell (Buy a few, okay?). They could all disappear in a fire or flood. At least we’d still have the e-books, I think, but what happens when the format changes or Amazon decides to purge its Kindle files?

It’s all temporary, my friends.

I have this picture in my mind of words fading away, like old-fashioned film-based photos exposed to the light before they’ve spent enough time in the fixer tray. The image slowly disappears, leaving a white sheet of paper on which you can’t tell anything was ever there.

Three lessons come to mind:

1) Paper is the only medium I truly trust to last long enough to retrieve a story 10 years later. I have two typewritten collections of poetry that I wrote over 40 years ago that are still just as legible as they were in the 1970s. The newer poems are in binders here on my desk, as is the latest novel. Yes, they’re on the computer, too.

2) Our computerized writing has an expiration date. If we don’t use our files or copy them onto the latest backup medium, they will disappear. Anyone who doesn’t back up their files at all is tempting fate.

3) Life is short, and computer files are temporary. Publishing is the ultimate backup plan; somewhere, in some form, a reader will have a copy, and our words will not die.

So if you’re not doing backups, start today. And if you have a good piece of writing, polish it and send it out.

For some good advice about backups, check out this article from PC World: “Your Backup Drive Needs a Backup Plan.”

Meanwhile, I’m going to print this post, just in case. 🙂

Now go write.