In the early months of the pandemic, I made some internet friends and decided to write a novel.
We were kind of a writing syndicate with no central group chat. We had numerous shared Google Docs and Drives, we were all working on incredibly ambitious projects, we lived on different continents, and we all had different aspirations in life. Two of them I only ever contacted via email, even though I’d read hundreds of pages of their writing and they’d read as much or more of mine.
The distance between us is mostly my fault; I wasn’t great at keeping in contact once I started college. I also wasn’t great at working on my novel consistently. It was always on my mind, but I was a full-time student from fall 2020 onward (summer 2020 I wrote the first 100 pages of the novel), and it was hard to keep the momentum going. Summer 2021 I wrote a little more. Early 2022 I somehow wrote even more. Spring 2022 I took a creative writing class in which I turned every assignment into a chapter of the novel. Over the course of the semester, I added about 70 pages to the story.
Somehow, by the end of summer 2022, I’d reached something like 60,000 words, much of it polished and rewritten. The story felt tender, sensitive, too shy to share with others—I sent only early drafts to my old writing pals when they asked and was mortified every time I thought about them reading it. What if they were not the people I thought they were? What if they were sitting together laughing about what I’d written? These feelings were especially strong in fall 2022, when I happened to be taking five courses and writing my first junior paper, which is to say, I had no time to write for myself. I think I was justifying to myself why it was okay that I wasn’t actively writing, editing, or planning future parts of my story. Nevertheless, it felt like a part of my personality, my shadow self that others didn’t get to see. The novel was told from the perspective of a child who is sometimes cruel and judgmental, other times a self-absorbed ball of fear. When I felt those feelings myself I was compelled to write. When I did not feel those feelings I was also compelled to write, to write the parts of the story that were kinder and weirder and intended to be beautiful.
And in particular, I had a manuscript that had been accepted into Princeton’s first student-run press, which was a completely separate story from my too-precious novel draft. They’d asked for an excerpt of a story 30-60 pages long, and I’d sent them an excerpt of an unfinished 27-page story. It was one of those things where I knew many people were submitting and I assumed I wouldn’t be accepted but I knew I’d feel annoyed with myself if I never even tried. So I’d searched through my recent archives until I found that unfinished story, which I felt would appeal to an audience of college-age women, and I polished it up a bit and submitted my excerpt. I stopped responding to messages from my writing syndicate pals.
They thought my excerpt was so thrilling. They couldn’t wait to see where it went next. They wanted the full story in an unspecified “few weeks.”
I had to finish my story.
I threw myself into the writing, grinding out sometimes 10 or 15 pages a day, only to rewrite them a few days later. The story rapidly expanded and I was able to send them what they needed. Around this time another writing project cropped up as well, and my novel faded from my mind entirely. I was trying to edit my novella for the student press and work on a paid-by-the-hour writing grant; I had no thoughts for anything else. After spending my January traveling and writing and editing as much as possible, I temporarily stopped writing in February in order to focus on the beginning of the semester without distractions. Occasionally I received an email or Google Hangouts message from my writing syndicate pals, but I would take an absurdly long time to respond.
End of February, 2023. I woke up one morning and thought of my novel and the first thought I had was, This could be great. This could be the greatest thing I’ve ever written and ever will write. My thoughts are not generally prone to drama; I tend to be fairly cynical about my own writing. But I’d had a dream that night in which the characters of my novel met with me for a fancy dinner and we spoke about their growth and how they were unfinished, how one of my main characters existed in a limbo between life and death, and how I had abandoned them without a backward glance. When I woke up that morning I started composing an email in my head to my writing pal whose own novel had begun to reach a considerable length. I wanted to read his work again, and to send him my own—the brighter, fresher drafts I’d recomposed from his meticulous comments over the years.
That evening I opened my computer and tried to find the folder in my Google Drive which was entitled “document”: I did not yet have a working title for this story.
“document” contained all of my first drafts, rewrites, and an ideas list.
When I opened the folder, only the ideas list was there. I tried searching the names of the drafts in my Drive. Nothing came up.
I tried looking in the Drives of all of my six different emails, even though I already knew which email these files were associated with.
I went into my email chain with my writing syndicate and found links I’d sent them for a few of the documents. When I clicked on each link, I received the same error message: Sorry, the file you have requested has been deleted.
I went into my Trash folder, but the documents weren’t there.
I Googled the problem frantically. Apparently Google Drive sometimes spontaneously deleted documents, especially those of considerable length. Apparently you could call Google and get them retrieved.
I got on the phone with Google around 10 PM. We alternated speaking—I was trying not to cry—and elevator music until 1 AM. Finally they said they’d run the retrieval process on my links and the documents should appear in 24-48 hours, if they were retrievable.
I waited 24 hours. I waited 36 hours. I waited 48 hours. I doubted my ability to count hours and waited 72 hours.
The documents did not reappear. Supposedly they had disappeared too long ago; if I had noticed their disappearance within a month they would have likely been retrievable. All I had left were a few scraps I’d written for my creative writing class and a little portfolio I’d edited at the end of the semester, because these had been saved in the Google Drive for my school email.
I emailed my creative writing professor. She told me the same kind of thing happened to Hemingway once, which was probably supposed to make me feel better. She reassured me that I’d rewrite the novel better, and that this was just a setback.
The way I felt after the loss of my novel is best approximated as grief; I can think of no other way to describe it.
And like grief, it comes and goes.
Finally, I emailed my writing pal, the one who’d read the most of my work. He told me he’d downloaded my first draft of my first 100 pages onto his computer. He attached the download to his email. It was a different story than the one I remembered, in many ways, but these were my words and this was a relic of how the story had begun. This plus the portfolio from my class constituted a kind of memorial. I was missing another 200-plus pages, but at least I didn’t have nothing. I even had a legitimately trustworthy internet friend who I now struggled to speak to, because every conversation reminded me of my lost novel.
A significant portion of the novel focused on the contemporary art scene in New York. When I started writing, I knew nothing about this topic and there was a global pandemic preventing me from going to New York and learning more. Instead, I researched online, watched videos, and used my imagination. Recently, I was lucky enough to go on a Princeton trip to numerous art galleries in Chinatown. I asked silly questions like, “Are galleries usually on the first floor? Are your buyers rich or really really rich or are they corporations?” The following day I came back to New York and explored galleries in Tribeca and Chelsea. Some part of my brain had shut off and I had forgotten that my novel was gone. I was taking many pictures of doorways and artworks very zoomed in and staircases and the tools the movers used when putting the paintings on the walls. I thought I was so clever for doing “research.”
And then late Friday night it struck me like a cold knife that my research was inspired by vanity, inspired by the idea that I deserved to possess this child, my novel, which I had alternately nurtured and neglected, and moreover assumed was mine no matter what, and not transient, and I could hoard it like Smaug hoards his gold for as long as I liked with no consequences whatsoever. And for me to have assumed this was so deeply vain. I didn’t know what I was more ashamed of: my neglect of my novel, or the extent to which I continued to care, to feel like my writing was such an important thing that it defined me and was worthy of all these strong feelings which were simultaneously embarrassingly intimate and horribly foreign.
In recent weeks I’ve begun working on my senior thesis, which is the first time I’ve pursued something novel-length that isn’t my lost novel since sophomore year of high school. I’ve been pasting my drafts periodically into strange other platforms (on one platform, with uncharacteristic superstition, I’ve tagged a draft with a mataki emoji). I’ve needed to keep reminding myself that it’s okay that this is a different story, it’s okay that I’m continuing to leave those old characters behind, because it is just not possible for me to work on one brand-new novel and rewrite another from memory at the same time. I like my new story. It’s older and hopefully more mature. It’ll reflect who I am now instead of permitting me to delve into a coded map of who I was once, when I was writing from my childhood bedroom about a child who is nothing like me and yet shares a shadow self with me, and came from me. This novel was absolutely fiction. Still, it came from me. It was me, even though I am not my novel, and though it’s now gone, I like to think it’s out there somewhere, floating in the ether, hoping to one day find its way home.