Don’t let your words turn into electricity
by Dale Short
Jul 15, 2012 | 325 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dale Short
Dale Short
For the first time in years, my computer caught me with my pants down this week.

Not literally, though the sensation is as bad or worse. I was huddled in my garage office typing away on a manuscript when the siren song of caffeine called to me, as it so often does—the lure of good strong coffee plus an excuse to take a break from working is an irresistible combination.

But when I got up to go inside, my foot caught under an extension cord and accidentally unplugged the computer. I thought nothing about it until I came back out with a hot cup of brew and rebooted the machine. I opened the word-processing software, and was met with ...a blank page.

This did not compute. Long ago, I learned the hard way to frequently save any project I was working on, and — considering my usual run of luck — the more frequently the better. (This was when word processors were so primitive that the “Auto-Save” function was not even a gleam in some programmer's eye.)

Now, though, I obviously hadn't hit “Save” in more than two hours, and as author William Zinsser once said, “All my words turned back into electricity.”

I gritted my teeth and aimed to get to the bottom of this, clicking deeper and deeper levels of my “Tools” menu to get to where the truth lay.

The truth was, the Auto-Save tool had been turned off, either by myself or by some dark gremlin that cavorted through the machine's innards when I wasn't there. I'm betting on the gremlin, but either way the result was the same: Zip.

Fortunately, I write so slowly that two hours of work is only about two pages, but still. I started rewriting, remembering what little of the chapter I could, and tried hard to learn the lesson without letting it put me in a funk the rest of the day. (In the meantime, I set my Auto Save interval to 30 seconds. The ball's in your court, gremlin.)

I managed to turn my irritation into a renewed paranoia, which is not altogether a bad quality for somebody in the writing biz. Horror stories abound, over the centuries, about well-known writers forever losing unpublished books, or big chunks of them — during wartime, say, or when suitcases were misplaced or stolen on ships or trains.

More recently, a friend of a friend, author Maxine Hong Kingston, lost her home to a California wildfire — and with it, both the original and backup copies of a book she had been working on for more than a year.

At the time, my paranoia kicked into such high gear that I had the brilliant idea to store a spare copy of my writing each day under the seat of my pickup truck, in the unlikely event that the Southside of Birmingham was ravaged by wildfires. The idea worked like a top, until somebody stole the truck.

Fortunately, not long afterward, Google started to revolutionize the world. Since then, I've made it an ingrained habit to G-mail myself a copy of every manuscript at the end of every day. At least, of every day with electricity.

At times the habit seems like grandiose overkill. But a few years ago, when the sudden death of a laptop was followed by an unplanned change of residence, I discovered that two short stories I'd written for a future collection — roughly three months' work — no longer existed.

I was so bummed out I didn't immediately think of the Google safety net. But when I did, a computer search turned up both stories, intact, on the distant G-server.

As the old Monkees song says, I'm a believer. And when the collection is out, hopefully next year, I'll need to include a note of thanks to Google in the book's acknowledgments. I also need to check and make sure Google is not in the possible path of a California wildfire.

Until then, I'm thinking it wouldn't hurt to store a copy of each day's writing in the trunk of my ancient Oldsmobile, just in case. Anybody who'd steal that car obviously needs a story worse than I do.

Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, and radio features are available on his website, His weekly radio program "Music from Home" airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at, and is archived afterward on his website. His first book, the collection of columns “I Left My Heart in Shanghi, Alabama” will be reprinted in an anniversary edition this summer by NewSouth.