"I know what you're thinking, punk," hissed Wordy Harry to his new editor, "you're thinking, 'Did he use six superfluous adjectives or only five?' - and to tell the truth, I forgot myself in all this excitement; but being as this is English, the most powerful language in the world, whose subtle nuances will blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel loquacious?' - well do you, punk?"
Is being an editor as exciting as it sounds?
Well, Scott, I am glad you asked!
First I should clarify, because I think I have been playing fast and loose with clarity. Sometimes I am an editor, and that can be distinctly unexciting. I am not really the kind of editor that appears in that story, but rather the kind who takes a text but some already acceptable person and makes it more available. The project that I was bemoaning here, here, here, here, here, and here will be published next March, so they say (though they misspelled my first name, dammit).
But other times I am more like Wordy Harry (not as hard-boiled, but still wordy as hell!), and this is one of those times. So, Scott, let me reframe your question to be, "Is being a writer as exciting as it sounds?"
Here is a profile of a fantastic writing day:
4:00 a.m. Wake up, go to the bathroom, try to go back to bed, count backwards in Italian, and finally find that I am not falling asleep because there are mad thoughts churning in my brain so I might as well get up.
4:15 a.m. Turn on the computer, wipe the sleep from the eyes, and try to get adjusted to the lights. Convince the cats that I did not get up to feed them.
4:30 a.m. Read other people's blogs for a while and see if anyone other than spam generators has sent me any e-mail.
5:00 a.m. Get down to work: this requires music of course, and what is better than Bach's Art of the Fugue or the new Vivaldi choral music I bought in Venice, or maybe Beethoven's Diabelli Variations or some late string quartets. The important thing here is that the music be complicated enough to engage the mathematical part of my brain and free up the creative and analytical parts to write.
6:00 a.m. Grunt approvingly at the PP as he brings me a giant cup of coffee.
7:45 a.m. Grunt at the PP as he leaves for work.
9:30 a.m. Realize I have not had breakfast, so go into the kitchen and make some and then stuff it down my maw and hurry back to my desk.
2:30 p.m. Can I be hungry again? Scrounge some lunch.
4:30 p.m. Realize I am getting dopey, so move away from the computer and read someone else's book for a change.
5:30 p.m. Greet the PP when he gets home from work and try to come back to planet earth.
Now you will notice that that timeline says very little about writing itself. That is because that part, the actual writing part, is a mystery. There is something that can happen then (on the good days), and if I let it happen it is almost a kind of ecstasy. Athletes out there would be tempted to call it being in the zone, and I suppose in a way it is, but the only sort of: there is a sense of letting one's work-a-day self go, letting worldly concerns go, and even (ideally!) letting anxieties and insecurities go, in order to let the words come. Come on, words! And bring some thoughts with you!
In this state I might fly from working through a translation of an essay to checking up on some information, to meandering through other parts of whatever I consulted to check that information, to going off on some random tangent, to coming back to the translation, to analyzing the essay I have translated, to making a surprising connection to that random tangent from earlier, to discovering that something I had thought was not going to matter matters tremendously, to realizing that the person in one part of my chapter is not the same one as another part, to figuring out how to rectify that problem, to launching into a massive description of something I had seen a few years ago in a site-visit, and on, and on.
Writing for me is about letting my mind spread out, about letting go of whether or not I am sure that what I am trying to do is going to work and just trusting it. It is about loving what I am studying, and loving what I am saying. Gertrude Stein says that the purpose of poetry is to find a way back to the “thrill” that names hold when first learned, now that “the name of that thing of that anything is no longer anything to thrill any one except children.” I do not write poetry, but even in the world of scholarly writing, we have to find our way back to that thrill--or else who would want to read what we write? Trusting your material and trusting yourself to be thrilling--what a leap of faith!
Before I know it, my desk is stacked perilously with opened books and there are piles of other books and xeroxes all over my study. Before I know it it is 5:30 at night and I do not know where I was all day.
Sometimes when the PP comes home at 5:30, I just cannot bring myself back to the modern moment. Sometimes I look at him like I looked around the house when I was first back from Italy, and had woken up from a nap, and was utterly confused to be in my own living room. Sometimes I have to ask him to repeat what he just said because it seems like he is speaking in a foreign language, or about people I have never met, or I have no idea what he does for a living. And luckily for me, he forgives me for this, because I am not always like this and he knows how much I love to write. This is one of many reasons we call him the Patient Partner.
So to come back to the question: is being a writer as exciting as it sounds? It is, Scott, one of the most exciting things I have ever experienced.