On Stumbling While Reading

Sometimes your reading runs aground. You read and read, moving on smoothly, even if not effortlessly, taking in the written word, perhaps admiring the art and craft on display, perhaps envying a competence and creativity beyond your own, and then, abruptly,  jarringly, there is no more purchase, no swell to lift the boat. You stare at the page; it stares back at you. You re-read to no avail. You have lost contact with the author; that outstretched hand, which was guiding you across the shoals of a difficult theoretical movement, is now gone, suddenly frustratingly elusive. The trail, the track, is lost; you back up and try again. Again, to no avail. You find familiar territory somewhere in the rear, and you retreat to its safety, reassuring yourself that you have not lost the competency you once thought you had. You venture forth again and stumble back, chastened and defeated. This might be where the trail runs out, where you come to a halt.

Reading is a funny business; in this age of perennial distraction even more so. But even without distraction there is still something magical about how it proceeds, how our reading ‘voice’ becomes internalized, about how the reader finds purchase in the text and ventures forth into the unknown, carrying on a dialog with the author. This is a process that sometimes goes wrong even when it is going well. The comprehensible text, the flowing text, can become the incomprehensible, the statically frozen, the impenetrable. This occurs, at least in part, because the challenges of writing are not fully solved by the writer and thus become the reader’s.  The ‘finished version’ is merely the ‘last draft’; it is not uniformly accessible to the reader; it contains within it bad neighborhoods all of its own. Here might be where a particularly tangled web of the text’s narrative became a little too dense, a little too resistant to the author’s attempts to clear it away; here might be where a complicated argument got out of control and resisted taming. All the rewrites have not helped; the towel has been thrown in.

These zones of confusion can be large or small; they may offer temporary swamps or permanent barriers to progress. They may only interrupt, or they may derail. Sometimes the only option is to leapfrog them; to move on, and beyond, with nary a glance backwards. This can be occasion for bruised pride, for a bewailing and gnashing of teeth. But that is to protest too much; we should not expect every step of a journey to be an easy or painless one. To be sure, we run the risk of having missed out on the most crucial passages of all, those stones without which the foundation of the text before us will crumble. But perhaps that is a risk that is unavoidable, a discomfort that must be made bearable, if we are to ever to carry on, to discover what lies ahead and beyond. Besides other sectors of incomprehension.

Cutting Some Umbilical Cords (The Virtual Kind)

The day after the World Cup ended, I called my cable company and cancelled my cable and land-line subscriptions. (My phone call with my internet service provider’s customer service representative was long-winded, perhaps inevitably so given the number of inducements sent my way suggesting I only change the offerings in my subscription packages, but it was nowhere near as unpleasant as that nightmare Comcast call that went viral a few weeks ago.) And then, two weeks ago, I uninstalled the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone.

As far as attempts to roll back the tide of digital distraction go, these gestures give me a Canute-like air; they are minor in conception, execution, and probability of success.  Still, I suppose, they are not entirely insignificant either; they are gestures of a resistance of sorts, and that, even if quixotic, or perhaps because, can be suitably energizing. (The annual monetary savings on the canceled subscriptions promise a couple of airfares to domestic destinations.)

The desperation that provoked them has been alluded to by me here, in these pages, on many a previous occasion. Writing and reading, in these days of being ‘predisposed to interruption’ is harder than it always is; its still a privileged, leisurely activity, most assuredly, but it requires just a little more commitment when easy beguilement is only a tab or so away. This summer, like the others before it, seemed long and endless before it began, week after week stretching away, unoccupied, promising long hours of scholarship and rewarding dilettantism. And then, mysteriously, heat induced lassitude, the World Cup showed up in town, schedules decayed, and as the end of the summer beckoned, as did teaching with its new syllabi and bulging class rosters, so did postponements of publishers’ deadlines. In the panicky mood induced by this sense of a summer slipped out sight, the phone call to the cable company and uninstalled phone apps were no-brainers. I had little time left now for live sport; and I was growing a little nauseated by my mindless scrolling through News Feeds and Timelines while waiting for trains and buses.

Next week, I will travel–to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state–and plan to stay off the grid as often as possible; the relief promised by such abstinence is fast becoming a much-praised reward for the virtuous withdrawal. I look forward then, to not just the auto-back-pat but also the social approval sure to be sent my way. (I have often wondered, ever since I bought my smartphone two years ago, whether I would be able to resist the temptation to post photos to my blog while I was traveling; the answer, as I found after two days of struggling with blogging apps and poor cellphone service in Oklaholma and New Mexico, was that it was very easy to not want to be bothered once I was on the road.)

These little corners that I keep cutting, in an effort to clear some space in which to do work, to quell the monkey-brain, require little effort to identify; the hardest work is acting, and then, staying on the straight and narrow.

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.’

Writing, the Beating of Metal, and Self-Transformation

I have been greedily raiding Divisadero‘s stores for little gems to excerpt here. But with writing that lovely and illuminating, there is little cause for shame. So once again:

Sometimes truth is too buried for adults, it can be found only in hours of rewritings during the night, the way metal is beaten into fineness.

I like this description of ‘hours of rewriting’ and the comparison with ‘the way metal is beaten into fineness.’ I like the invocation of the malleability and ductility of metal for a simple reason: we think of metal as hard, shiny, resistant, an archetype of unbending resistance, the epitome of heaviness; it always sinks, always hurts when it makes contact with soft, resistant flesh. In forming these associations, we forget the science lessons that introduced us to the systematic study of metals: when we were informed of metals’ distinctive physical properties in the domain of ‘solids’, that metal could be turned into wires and films, into shapes of our wildest imaginings. The way in which that was done, by repeated hammerings and drawings out, by all manners of tools, also introduced us to the notion of metal as transformable, as flexible. Metals belied expectations in many ways: they weren’t liquids, but would flow when subjected to the right temperatures; they were hard but not undeformably rigid; they gave a little, if you pushed a lot; if you persisted, you could turn it into wafer thin coverings, like those films of silver used to cover Indian sweets.

For many reasons, the comparison of the beating of metals into fineness with the process of rewriting is a good one. We think of our written words as cast in stone, as impervious, they resist our sternest imprecations to magically read better, to be better than they are. But we need to change them, to transform them, to not be put off by their seemingly metallic nature. Sometimes I describe the act of persistent rewriting as a ‘massaging’ but that description does not work as well as Ondaatje‘s does. The ‘massaging’ speaks of a caress, a gentle moulding; the beating into fineness summons up better the imposition of will that a determined rewrite or deep, sustained, judicious edit demands.

Lastly, the bit that begins that sentence above: self-discovery and transformation, the digging up of archival materials left untouched for too long by those who have grown up, takes attention, work, persistence and diligence; it can be aided and accomplished by writing, by bringing it forth. Much like the ‘beating into fineness’ of the metal produces an entirely new shape, look, and feel, the act of persevering at writing can, by steadily dredging up the subterranean, produce a new self.

So writing is not just productive of the written word, it can also make a new self. And just like the metal was previously imagined to be cast in the mold that had first produced it and yet somehow, transformed, we might find more flexibility, more wiggle room for maneuver than we might have imagined.

Combating Envy with the Quotidian

Last week, I suffered a crippling, sickening, attack of envy. For one day, soon after I had awoken and fixed myself my morning cuppa, a missive arrived, confirming for me not just someone else’s spectacular success, but also the darkest assessments I often entertain about my professional and intellectual worth. I tried to put these thoughts aside, immersing myself in the logistical routines that occupy the early part of the day: fixing breakfast, dropping off my daughter at daycare, riding the subway to the library, reading Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. But my mind was only partially diverted.

I could, if I wanted, wallow further in the envy that had afflicted me; I could go back, again and again, to confirm for myself, the details of my diminution in the face of another’s overwhelming achievements. I hectored myself to not do so, but self-flagellation can sometimes be a hard impulse to resist. So, on arrival at the library, I sat down, logged in, stared at the screens that enabled all manners of unfavorable comparison, and completed the flogging.

Eventually, well aware I was spinning into a spiral of self-loathing, I turned to work. I wrote for most of the morning, slowly sipping on a rapidly cooling cup of coffee; later in the day, I bought myself lunch and ate it at my workstation as I continued a long editing task–whittling down a large body of text into a more manageable chunk that I could then start to rewrite into more readable form. I agonized over which chunks to excise, which sections to toss into the trash, which to retain. Because I was looking at an older piece of writing, I was occasionally brought up short by a passage that seemed particularly clunky; how had that ever gotten past me?

Later in the day, made distracted and anxious by my writing, and assailed again by the same emotions that had got my day off to such a bad start, I allowed myself yet another moment of wallow-in-the-Mire-of-Envy. But that was it. From that point onward, I grew increasingly engrossed in my word-reduction endeavors: I became increasingly ruthless, pruning with ever bolder abandon. Murdering darlings became easier as time went by and what’s more, I was quite starting to enjoy it.

And then, the close of the work day was at hand; I had written a few words; I had deleted many more. I packed up, headed for the subways, and was rewarded by its resident deities with a seat during rush hour. I returned to Divisadero. Then, once at the gym, barbells banished any remnant distractions from my mind; acute muscular exertion tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully. Finally, at home, I bade goodnight to my daughter, ate dinner, finished watching The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, and went to bed.

Nothing had changed in my resume; but somehow, as usual, an absorption in the here and now, in my daily particulars, in the things I enjoy, had managed to divert me from the emotions that had, earlier in the day, figuratively brought me to my knees.

An old lesson learned again, and no doubt, to be learned again in the future.

The Author’s Offspring, the Finished Deal

A few days ago, I received my author copies of my latest book. Five paperbacks, neatly bundled up in a cardboard parcel bearing an impressive array of stamps and customs bills. I tore open the cardboard (with my bare hands, no less!) Inside, they were wrapped up in clear plastic, neatly and tightly stacked on each other. The plastic came off a little easier, and then, there they were, in my hands at long last. (I will pick up a couple of hardcover versions over the weekend from my co-author; they look extremely pretty to say the least, and have managed to surmount the aesthetic barrier raised by the provision of my photograph on the dust jacket.)

The physical affordance of a book–its look and feel, its weight and heft, its distinctive aroma of new paper and printers’ ink–are all too often commented on when people bemoan their loss in the face of the advancing juggernaut of the e-book and the handheld book reader.  I won’t get into that debate here; I’ve done so many times elsewhere.

Rather, I just want to make note of a peculiar and particular instance of the delights of the physical book, the one alluded to above, a kind of converse of the e-book phenomenon: the pleasure experienced by an author when the transformation of the electronic document into a paper-and-ink object is complete. The multiple, scattered word processor files–one for each chapter–with their standard fonts are taken over by the typesetter’s unitary object; the margins and pagination change; frontispieces appear; author biographies are inserted; the cataloging information page is added on; the copyright signs proclaim your relationship to the ‘work’; and lastly, the final piece of the puzzle, the–hopefully, tasteful and artful–covers are slapped on top and bottom (or front and back.)

Your babe is ready for its close-up but you are the one simpering.

When I look at the finished piece it’s hard to not marvel at the transformation of the once-so-familiar; those same pages, which had once made me almost nauseous during the endless copy-editing, proof-reading and revision cycles, now look decidedly more amenable to approach; they do not repel me as much as they did during those final days when the finish line seemed both proximate and agonizingly distant.

So distinct is this change that you are almost inclined to think the content might have changed too, that perhaps your writing might have even become better with all the cosmetic surgery its packaging has undergone. But there is no such relief; the writing remains resolutely the same.

And then lastly, there is the rueful acknowledgment that no matter how hard you try, blemishes creep in. For all my proof-reading I missed out on spelling errors, and readers have already sent in four corrections. Even more embarrassingly there is a ludicrous technical error late in the book. I can only blame it on exhaustion and ennui.

One copy gets given away today, complete with inscription, to a friend. The rest go on the shelves; they won’t be read by me, but perhaps someone else will step up.