Copy-Editing and Proofing Nightmares With a Twist

Dreams are revealing and so, I have never talked about my dreams on this blog. And perhaps that struck me as too self-indulgent. But that is a decidedly strange decision because, from time to time, I have indulged in many autobiographical ramblings here. Today, I’m going to recount one from last night, most certainly one of the most singular I have ever experienced, one worth recapitulating because it is about books, writing and anxiety, and so it should resonate with those who write. And those who are anxious. (The intersection of those two sets is huge.)

So, the dream. I cannot quite place the location or time, but the setting is quite clear: I am in a large room with windows and a large desk in front of me. I am working on a manuscript, a book of mine, brought to me for copy-editing and proof correction by, get this, a human messenger. That’s right; this manuscript has not been emailed to me by a publisher for correction. Rather, a large burly man, I think only partially clothed, and I think, glistening with sweat, a cross between a palace guard and a championship wrestler, has personally carried over it to me. I do not remember his features too well, but he is definitely muscular and bare-chested. He resembles more than anything else, an executioner of sorts, someone, who if provoked, might easily turn to violent reprisal or correction. I am to correct it, make all the necessary changes, and then hand it back to ‘Ol Hermes here to carry to back to the publisher. So I get to work; I feel compelled to.

As I work through the book, I make corrections with a pencil. Suddenly, I stop and look at my corrections; they strike me as illegible. Yes, even I, their writer, cannot quite make out what my corrections, strikeouts, and amendments amount to. They need decipherment, and I will have to do so quickly. In an effort to seek reassurance, to assuage a suddenly manifest anxiety, I call over the messenger, and point him to the scribbles, saying ‘I seem to have marked up the book quite badly. What do I do?’ My man merely grunts, and says, ‘Finish it up, and then we’ll go through it together.’ At first, this strikes me as impractical but then I reason to myself that it will not be too bad. Surely, it can’t take more than a day. Reassured, I return to work.

But things get worse. I notice there is new, strange, unfamiliar text in the book. Not just simple typos or text manglings. Rather, there are illustrations I have never seen before, and even worse, entire passages of text that seem to have appeared by magic, inserted by an anonymous hand. Finally as crowning insult or injury, there is an entire new section written in first person describing experiences that I have never had. I stop, unable to continue to any more. Who has done this? I realize that I am not just perplexed or irritated or angry. I am scared. In part, it is because I am anxious. How can I make the required corrections? I don’t have the source file; this is a typeset file; I will have to strike out, replace; it all seems to be bubbling up into a chaotic, irredeemable mess. But even more fundamentally, I feel the fear of the violated. Someone has taken a hammer to my  Pietà; someone has reached out, cuffed me on the ears, slapped me across the face, and told me, bluntly, that they can get change my work, modify its meaning, become its author, without asking me for permission; who, why?

At this point, the dream starts to fade as my fear and anxiety build. This is a normal turn of events in dreams of mine where the anxiety levels become unbearable. I think I call Hermes to show him the mess, to ask him if he knows anything about how this mutilation might have taken place. But—and I cannot remember clearly now—it is not as if he has anything useful to offer. Why would he know? His is not to reason why; it is only to transport the text back and forth. And the dream comes to an end.

I started writing this blog post shortly after waking up in the morning so the details as I can remember them are as clear as they can be.  I’m still perplexed by it. I wonder if the messenger symbolizes the tyranny of the deadline, the fear of contract cancellation, or the implacable inflexibility of the publisher. And copy-editing is hard, tedious work, of course, leaving behind many a scar worn in by memories of endless, iterative checks. But the most interesting emotional response of mine, I think, was the fear that someone had the power to change what I wanted to say before I could say it, to modify my written word before it saw its way into print.

4 comments on “Copy-Editing and Proofing Nightmares With a Twist

  1. elkement says:

    Writing about writer’s anxieties … reminds me of Stephen King’s ‘Misery’ and ‘Secret Window’. I would consider writing a novel on this (seriously).

  2. […] Baker’s ‘On the Stovetop of Sleep.’ Inspired by this, and remembering my recounting of an anxious dream related to copy-editing in the face of a publisher’s deadline, I thought I’d put down a brief note about my […]

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