Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A lifetime’s work in one gigabyte

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The blinking folder of death

My laptop died yesterday. Shortly after I finished my usual rounds of The A.V. Club and Reddit over breakfast, it began making a pronounced clicking noise, and when I restarted it, I saw the image above, which is never a good sign. None of the recommended fixes seemed to work, and although I’m going to try reinstalling my system software at some point, it seems likely that this computer has given up the ghost. This isn’t entirely unexpected: it’s a refurbished MacBook, now discontinued, that I bought more than five years ago, and I’ve since replaced it with a newer model. The one that expired this week currently lives on my kitchen counter, where I don’t use it for much besides browsing the web and playing DVDs. (As an aside, I want to let Apple know that I’m never going to buy a laptop without an optical drive until I find an alternate way of playing my Simpsons commentary tracks, which means that any replacement I get will probably be a basic model running Linux or, sigh, Windows.)

Fortunately, everything on that particular hard drive had already been copied to my newer laptop, so I’m not worried about losing anything meaningful. Still, in a burst of belated backup paranoia, I spent a few minutes copying my most important files to a flash drive. These include drafts of all my novels and Analog stories, messages from earlier email accounts, various boring personal documents, like tax returns, and most of the written ephemera of my life since I before started college. Taken together, all these files amounted to a ridiculously small amount of disk space—maybe a gigabyte all told. And for a moment, I found myself somewhat discouraged by how little there was. Fifteen years of nonstop writing had resulted in significantly less information than exists in, say, a single episode of Top Chef on iTunes. And maybe ten percent of this reflects material that I’d regret losing, with the rest consisting of duplicate drafts or college term papers that I don’t remember writing in the first place.

A view of my hard drive

Yet there’s something weirdly encouraging about the compactness of the written word. The drafts of my novels, which are about 100,000 words long, each amount to roughly 800 kilobytes. You couldn’t save a single rendered frame of animation in a file that size, but somehow each of those Word versions contains an entire story, with characters and events that mean a lot to me, and hopefully mean something to a few other readers. Text, after all, is the most efficient medium of communication we have. A single line—”I know a bank where the wild thyme blows”—can evoke endless associations, and it can be easily stored, transmitted, or memorized. And although most of us compose our stories these days on an absurdly expensive piece of technology, the fact that the product is so modest in size results directly from the fact that its underlying form, a string of alphabetic characters strung together in a particular order, can easily be generated with a pencil and paper.

And this is something that deserves to be celebrated. The fact that a story written using a universally available medium can be distributed and experienced online, in print, or on someone’s phone or Kindle is pretty amazing, and it’s a big reason why I wanted to become a novelist, in preference to any other artistic career. Roughly speaking, the more disk space a work of art needs to be stored or transmitted, the greater the expense required to create it—although “expense” isn’t the same thing as effort or time. Good writing is just as cheap to produce, at least on a material level, as its laughable storage needs would imply. It allows a writer to work alone, making plenty of false starts and wrong turns, but always reassured by the fact that even a major revision costs nothing except time and sanity. The emotional and spiritual costs are beyond calculation, but the startup costs will always be zero. That gigabyte of content I’ve produced doesn’t seem like much, but if you look at it from another angle, it starts to look like freedom.

Written by nevalalee

February 19, 2013 at 9:50 am

Posted in Books, Writing

Tagged with ,

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