My Favorite Reader

For as long as I have been married, my wife has been my favorite reader. She reads and offers comments on almost everything I write, from the brief posts here (and at The Cordon) to my books.  She reads my angry emails, my applications for various academic offerings–nothing is too long or too short or trivial to not be read by her. She patiently puts up with a never-ending stream of requests from me: “Can you read this today? Can you read this by tomorrow? Can you tell me whether this makes any sense? Do you think I’m clear enough here? Is this just trivial bullshit? Are you sure this isn’t complete crap?” And on and on. Once I’m reassured by her that everything is a ‘go’, I can press ‘send’ or ‘publish.’ (Early on, in my academic writing, I established a simple standard: it had to be comprehensible to my wife, an educated non-academic. That glove has to fit, or it’s a no-go.)

Writers are a sensitive lot, of course, and so I don’t take too kindly to some of the criticism sent my way–even from folks whom I’ve asked for critique. There are times when my wife and I sit down to discuss her comments on a draft of mine, and our conversation becomes edgy and just a little contentious. My writing is limpid and clear; how could it possibly be ambiguous or confusing? Surely, this aside that I’ve just made here is not an irrelevant distraction but a valuable and useful supplement to the central thread of discussion? Of course, this sentence stands on its own, and my elaboration here, to you, will not be needed by the reader. There are times, indeed, when my wife will terminate a debriefing session with a brief and exasperated, “Look, those are my comments as a reader; do what you want with them.”

And I do. Even if I’m defensive and stubborn at times, too much in love with my transient creations.

The hardest suggestions to take on board are inevitably, deletions. Last week, I argued–with some vigor–in favor of retaining a particular tiny sliver of my writing: a sentence that ended a paragraph by hearkening back to a previous chapter. I thought the backwards reference worked and strenuously resisted the suggestion that it be deleted. I finally walked away, irate,  in a huff, saying “That sentence stays.” The next morning, on waking up, before I even made my morning coffee, I walked over to my desk, opened up the manuscript file, turned to the right page, and deleted the offending sentence. My wife had been right; it had to go. And what a relief it was to see it disappear off the page.

I’ve written many co-authored works and I’m grateful to all my collaborators on those projects for their expenditures of creative and intellectual energy in making my writing better. I can see their impress in every word that has finally made it to the printed page. But along with them, my favorite reader is also present.

The author includes the reader too.

Falling Off the Wagon

I had a bad week. Starting Friday April 18th, my brain went on the blink. In the following nine days, I only blogged twice (instead of my usual daily schedule), went to the gym only three times (instead of my scheduled seven times), read no books, and only entered into minor bouts of editing. I had thought I would take a small one-day break from my regular schedules, but it became much bigger. I was ‘unproductive’ in all the ways you can imagine; I did not take care of body or mind; I let them come asunder. This was a falling off the wagon, a derailment, a stumble and fall on a slippery peel I placed out for myself.

Today, I’m back in the library, my hands are back on a keyboard, the book I began reading more than ten days ago is in my backpack, waiting to be finished. (I returned to Albert Einstein‘s Ideas and Opinions on the train ride into Manhattan today.) I will go to the gym again today evening–my workout clothes, like that unread book, are in my backpack too–and attempt to resume my progress on the bench press. And after a week of eating enough sugar to induce coma in a small army of toddlers, I am back to trying to eat healthy again. (Broccoli and sausages in a lunchbox in, you guessed it, my backpack.)

Over the past nine days, as I stumbled about, desperately conscious I was not on the straight or narrow, and neither sinner nor saint for being so, I thought about the metaphors that came to mind to describe my ‘fall’ and wondered how it had come to be. I had let myself get too tightly wound, I had become too anxious, I had not blown steam off; when release had presented itself, I had seized the opportunity. I found relief of a sort, but it came accompanied by anxiety and so was not terribly palliative in the end. Strangely enough, I had to return to the scene of my trials, to come full circle, before I could begin to find redressal from my newly acquired affliction.

If all goes well, over the next few days, I will experience a familiar sensation: the easy euphoria produced by making up easily made up (and lost) ground. And then, I will find myself in a familiar space, where progress slows, frustration builds, and the temptation to lose a wheel or two will become stronger than ever. This kind of work, this returning again to the written word, to pages in paper and electronic form, can and will do that to you. (Because a book manuscript completion and submission is at hand, I dread a familiar nausea that awaits me over the next few weeks.) Perhaps, then, I will return and read this post as fair warning of the misery that awaits me were I to succumb to the temptation to take another ‘break.’

The Never-To-Be-Returned-To Perennial Draft

My email client shows eighty-two drafts resident in its capacious folders; my WordPress dashboard shows thirty-seven; and a quick search through various document folders on my desktop machine shows several dozen others. They are monuments and gravestones and white flags of surrender; they are signposts of intention, evidence of procrastination run amok; they are bitter evidence of an old truism, that you don’t know what you think till you see it in writing (and some of these show that I wasn’t thinking very much); they are caustic reminders of how imagination all too often outstrips effort and completion, how writerly ambition outruns ability.

Unfinished emails, some of them intemperate rejoinders to online commentary, personally critical emails, offensive or presumptive correspondence, some of them idle thoughts left half-formed, yet others overtaken by the turn of events; embarrassing reminders of what might have gone wrong had I ever, hastily and recklessly, hit the ‘send’ button; these sit in my mail folders. Very frequently, I sigh with relief at a bullet dodged, and wince at how I might have irreparably damaged a relationship. Here, there are many a drawn and then subsequently holstered gun, put away with its chambers still cold.

On this blog, my unfinished draft count had run as high as eighty; it needed some persistent cleaning up–deletions–to bring the number down. Some are mere notes to myself, with a pointer to something I felt needed response and commentary; yet others bear the mark of an incompletely worked out thought, simply run aground for lack of inspiration or perspiration. And my document folders show that I have started many more academic projects than I have finished. Like the blog posts, I have set out and then given up; the inspirational thought of the evening all too quickly turned into the laughable conceit of the morn; and sometimes, awed and intimidated by the dimensions of the presumptive task, I have let my shoulders droop, battened the hatches, and retreated. 

I have deleted many drafts over the years. Some were too ludicrous to tolerate any longer; why had I ever thought that line of thought was worth pursuing? And some too, were so incomplete, so grotesquely misshapen, that I could not even recognize the thought that had initially germinated it – let alone proceed with it any further.

And so there are the ones that remain. I humor myself, often, with the thought that I will return to them, to move them on, to push them on beyond the proverbial finishing ribbon, to bring them to conclusion and pat myself on the back for having shown persistence and gumption. But some of them will never be completed; I have moved on; I leave them around to tell me where I had gone wrong in the past and where I might again; and for all the various edificatory reasons listed above.

There is uncertainty here aplenty and certainty too, that their count will increase. But that thought is reassuring; for perhaps they will only increase as the completions do. That much is enough for now.