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 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.

The Burdens of Proofreading and Copy-Editing

There must be some sort of writer’s law out there that captures the sensation I am about to describe: as your book approaches the finish line, and as the final proofreadings, corrections, indexing queries, and debates about jacket and cover compositions pile up, the author’s nausea at the sight of his former ‘dearly beloved’ increases in direct proportion.

I have described this sensation before:

[W]eary and exhausted by the endless redrafting, polishing and proof-reading, I want only to be done with the damn thing. It’s not as if I’ve considered the ‘product’ then to be complete; rather, it is that I cannot summon up the energy for another painfully close and exacting edit. (Months later, when I look at the submitted version, I’m astonished by how much dross I let get by me.)

Or:

[C]opy-editing is hard, tedious work, of course, leaving behind many a scar worn in by memories of endless, iterative checks.

That moment is upon me again. My co-author, PVS Jagan Mohan, and I are now getting close to the final production stages of the first volume of our history of the air war component of the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh. (This is the second book we have worked on together; the first was a one-volume history of the 1965 air war between India and Pakistan). The book has been eight years in the making and I can’t wait for it to be over. The lion’s share of the work has been done by Jagan, but I’m still exhausted. I can’t imagine how he feels.

As is evident, I do not enjoy this process of ‘finishing’ a book, so much so that in the past, I have suffered from anxiety-ridden dreams about it. There is always, in these closing stages, a particularly insidious fear: that the process of revisions will never end, that I will be stuck, making revisions and emendations, caught in a perpetual loop of sorts, never seeing a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a manuscript come to fruition. Writing is a series of hurdles; this last stage, just like the first one, feels like the hardest. (Well, there’s those middle stages too, when you doubt the wisdom of ever having started the journey.)

Nothing makes copy-editing and proofreading less tedious. This morning, I have played classical music and electronica as sonic accompaniment; they offer only partial solace; they won’t do the reading and corrections for me; they won’t make the act of reading these four hundred odd pages for the umpteenth time any easier. I have, of course, sought relief in distraction: perhaps Facebook, perhaps Twitter, perhaps more sensibly, a little play-time with my little daughter.

Somewhere in the distance, because of the presence of the PDF file of the final proofs resident on my desktop, I can sense the final finished product: a slick paperback with an artfully designed cover, my name on its spine. But it’s still distant, and I feel overcome, again, by a curious mix of tedium and anxiety.

This thing, this beast, is supposedly a virtual intangible thing, an electronic file. But as I crawl toward the finish, it weighs on me like something far more corporeal.