On purpose

There was a time when I felt other than myself. I no longer felt the need to push ahead and make something, primarily because something as nuanced as editing felt increasingly meaningless in a world that was rapidly losing all sense of nuance. In addition, the planet was about to be destroyed, the third world war was coming, AI was going to destroy all our jobs, and in the grand scheme of things, what does a misplaced comma matter really? During a conversation with a friend, when I was telling her about how pessimistic I was feeling, she pointed out (somewhat tangentially) that as long as I measure my work through numbers – hours, billing, etc. – I will never be happy. It is all about the quality, she said. I, my head still full of the data my various productivity trackers were tracking, completely misunderstood her and thought she was referring to the amount of work done in an hour and started to complain about how distracted I have been. Let’s just say the point went over my head by a few feet.

A few days later, I was editing an article on stone pelting in Kashmir. The article was essentially a collection of short interviews with “stone pelters” and captures their day-to-day lives. It was an article with a strong voice, but the pitfall it was headed toward was very apparent. Without any data, it appeared to be mere anecdotes and opinion. As I worked my way through the article, painfully smoothening it out word by word, the gears at the back of my head kept clicking: how do I make this more credible? How do I provide a context for these conversations? How do I keep this article from being so easily dismissed? I wanted the article to not just read well, but for it to be read and understood the way it was intended to be read and understood and not be dismissed as mere opinion. I do not know what form the article will finally take after the many drafts I foresee, but I do know this: I will be proud of the work I’ve done on this one when it does come out. But here in the tricky part. If my friend hadn’t spoken to me about quality, if that conversation hadn’t been rattling around at the back of my head, would I still feel this pride? Or would it be overwhelmed by a feeling of guilt – of having spent so long on something which should have taken half as long? “We really cannot afford to work this way,” a business part of my brain would have kicked in, drowning any sense of accomplishment the artisan in me felt. Continue reading “On purpose”

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Passion found, accidentally

The truth is, over the last year, I’ve quietly grown to love editing. I’ve grown to love the craft of it, the way a swimmer enjoys the pleasure of her limbs moving through water, the efficiency of it. I find myself growing calm as I work, there is a certain joy in untangling ideas. In smoothening out a text, in removing snags along the path of an argument’s reasoning. I remember when I was in the UK last year, in her talk, Susan Greenburg mentioned that one of the qualities of an editor is the ability to hold in her mind multiple perspectives simultaneously. To be kind enough to see the potential of a work – to see what it could be – while simultaneously being professional enough to work with the present reality of it. To be able to see both the macro and the micro – to be able to see the missed commas and also the gaps in the argument. To strive for perfection, while knowing that it is unattainable. To close the distance between what the author means and what the reader understands. So much about editing is about in-between spaces. But somewhere along the line, one needs to draw a line in the sand: this is all that can be done, there can be no convergence. Just as one understands, perfection can have multiple definitions.

 

To a Younger Self

Old friend,
do not for a moment think
that you will receive a warm welcome here.
We parted on amicable terms years ago –
I thought we had an arrangement.

Life was simpler without you.
I found joy in going to bed early,
a secure income, insurance cover,
I had forgotten what a mess you are
of rage and desire; impatient
in your reminder of how swift
each contraction of the heart is;
I really want to slam the door in your face.

Crazy woman,
why did you come back?
It is my task now to
clothe you and civilise you
to not give in to your madness
to teach you to speak with words
and not claws.

It’s true that I’m not quite in form –
that I let myself go –
that it’s going to take me a while
to figure out how to tame you.
My beast.
My beloved.
Welcome back.
You have returned my story to me
Don’t leave just yet.

This Fortnight in Publishing

Hello,

I’m Chitra, an editor and publishing news curator from India. Every fortnight, I publish a round-up of links related to publishing, editing, and writing.

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Chitra

On Reading Anthony Doerr

It’s been a while since I read a book where I was not plummeting towards an ending. I tend to favour short intense books that swallow me whole and spit me out before I can blink. I like reading like a swimmer hurtling to the surface for air. I have a fondness for brevity, minimalism, lightness. Any draft that comes my way goes back bleeding red.

But this book, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, was a refreshing change of pace. It slows you down; it stops you on a busy street corner and says “Look!” It tells you the names of the birds in the air, which trees are flowering this season, it tells you exactly how breakfast tasted. It reminds you that you are standing in the locus of an electromagnetic spectrum and in this very moment, there are millions of messages hurtling past you—I love you, and I miss you, and don’t forget the eggs. There are so many things that are fantastic about this book and I don’t know where quite to start—but perhaps here—it reintroduces you to that feeling of wonder—when you can look at a bird spiraling high above and think, isn’t this just fantasticContinue reading “On Reading Anthony Doerr”

On reading Gillian Flynn

Spoilers ahead.

**

The last time I picked up a murder mystery was in high school. I was hooked onto Perry Mason back then, and the legendary lawyer and his dashing friends were a staple of our weekly library rounds. Eventually those books gave way to Michael Crichton and Ken Follett and David Baldacci and then I moved onto Amitav Gosh and Terry Pratchett.

In short, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn was my first murder mystery in ages. I don’t pretend to be connoisseur of the genre, but I had enjoyed Gone Girl the movie and I was looking for a book that would keep me turning the pages. The book delivered what it promised—it had me hooked, it surprised me, it had that final ‘aha!’ ending. It was grippingly written and it had everything that should have made it a great thriller—from Satanism and drugs to teenage pregnancy and child abuse. And yet, there were some points in the narrative where I could barely stop myself from rolling my eyes. It felt too in-your-face-obvious and trying-too-hard.

Why? Some of it was a problem of style. Dark Places was Flynn’s second book and I’m assuming her style will only grow smoother. Writing a good mystery is like pulling of a great card trick—the watcher knows something is going on, but they’re always one step behind. If your sleight of hand is clumsy—not quick or smooth enough—the trick fails. Some of the ‘clues’ felt a bit too obvious—the narrative flips between two timelines, one in the past and one in the future—and some past events mentioned in one chapter were immediately picked up in the investigation in the next chapter, leaving the reader feeling that they’ve been hit with a forensic brick.  Continue reading “On reading Gillian Flynn”

On Reading Kafka

To get back into the habit of writing, I promised myself that I will write something about every book I read. Not a review exactly, but something.

**

In my imagination Kafka was a pallid-faced monster sitting in a lonely moonlit garret, gnashing his teeth and with a hand driven by madness steadily moving across a page, his eyes staring into a blank wall, seeing horrors only the cursed can see.

That was before I actually read any Kafka. He is one of those writers whose reputations had constructed a monstrous entity in my mind that I had convinced myself I did not want to become acquainted with. Work-related reading brought “The Hunger Artist” and “Into the Penal Colony” to my attention, and in curiosity I soon read “The Judgement”, “The Country Doctor”, “Letter to an Academy”, and of course, “The Metamorphosis” in quick succession. I haven’t read “The Trial” yet, or any of his longer works, but I am inclined to take a breather before returning.

What caught me by surprise was the sadness of it all. Not grand tragedy no, the sadness of a man who has looked into the casual cruelty of our psyches and has been bewildered by it. Frightened and scrambling to find a way out on his worst days. But not angry, no. And never surprised. The stories seemed to come from a place where someone who has looked into the deepest evil in our hearts shrugs with a wry smile, as though to say, “What else can one do?” It is a smile that invites concord, and we cannot stop ourselves from guiltily chuckling along. (Guiltily, perhaps not because we feel truly horrible, but more in part because Kafka’s reputation has me somewhat convinced that he is “serious” writer and therefore I should not laugh.) But perhaps what is most striking about his humour is that it does not come from wordplay but like his sadness from simple and direct observation — how does one not laugh when one reads of the giant bug covered with a blanket rocking back and forth contemplating the best way to get out of bed without hurting its head?

We could all pretend to nobility within the walls of our minds, but in truth, we have only to drop our heads and accept in shame. We would have done no different. If Gregor Samsa had been my son I too would have driven him back with a broom no matter how much I had loved him in his human form, and when faced with a bizarre torture device I too would have hmm-ed and haaww-ed politely while formulating a plan to complain to a higher authority. All of Kafka’s people are ordinary people caught in bizarre circumstances. Perhaps the genius of Kafka lies not in his ability to create the bizarre circumstances (which he is most famous for), but in his ability to place everyday working class people in those situations and being able to dissect how they will react.  Continue reading “On Reading Kafka”