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.

The Physical Dimensions of Writing

Writing is a physical activity. This fact is quite well known to schoolchildren who write–with pencils and pens–diligently, and at length on their notebooks. (It must have been known too, to Georges Simenon, whose fingers must have needed dousing in ice water after his daily ritual of prolific pencil-fueled writing.) But it is even common knowledge to those among their cohort who now type on tablet and laptop keyboards; the wrists ache, the fingers are bruised. The exhaustion that results after a long spell of writing is not just that of brain cells wearily picking themselves off the cranial floor, but also that of limbs strained by the constant expression of the writer’s commands. And then, somehow, later in life, overcome by the over-intellectualizing of this particular mode of interaction with the world, the notion emerges that writing is all brain and no body, that a disembodied intelligence is at play, that writing enables an escape from physical confines of the body–which is true in a way, but not if taken literally.

Small wonder then, that writers are acutely conscious of their bodies when they write and keenly attuned and sensitive to the physical channels through which their words make their way to paper or screen. I’ve written here about my writing experiences with a fountain pen on paper; the modern counterparts of that implement, the word processor, the computer monitor, the keyboard, are just as deserving of attention.

One way to hint at my sensitivity to the physical dimension of writing on a computer is to note that a central reason why I will never buy a Mac is because I do not like its machines’–whether desktop or laptop–keyboards. Their keys do not afford my fingers the right kind of tactile response; they do not provide me the feedback that I subconsciously seek when I press down on them. I have had favorites in the past: the AT&T 4425 and IBM 3270 terminals were perhaps the  most deeply satisfying in terms of their immediate responsiveness, in their ‘give’ and in how they seemed to facilitate the rapid movement of my fingers over them. (I’m not a trained touch typist but over the years my fingers have, to some extent, internalized the locations of letter on keyboards and now move with some facility over them.)

These preferences mean that I very quickly disdain, or approve of, particular writing spaces or implements because of how they generate both a physical and mental space for writing. The ergonomic comfort of a chair and desk are obviously factors, but just as important is an ineffable sense of connectedness–in the right sort of way–to my writing machine and through it, to the visible word that is the result of my writing. Thus, because I do not like writing on laptop keyboards, and will only do so when absolutely forced to do so, I have hardly ever written in coffee-shops or on the  move. For better or worse, I’m desk-bound. (In the post just linked to, I noted this same physical aspect of writing.)

This physical dimension of writing is important for the writing process in the simplest of ways: to start writing, you must place your hands on the media through which you write. Put pen to paper or put fingers to keyboard.

Once contact is made, the game can begin.