I’ve been thinking a lot about writing — fiction writing — which, in an entirely justified and rather long hissy fit, I have stopped doing. There are a lot of frustrations — some with myself. I simply cannot proofread. It doesn’t matter how hard I try, how many times I go over a text, what tools I use, there are always tiny typos. It’s at the point where it feels like a failure of personality. I think of a certain boss I had at one point who really thought this was the result of arrogance and carelessness on my part. I’m neither arrogant nor careless, so that led to some pretty heated confrontations between us. I felt that she could use her abilities and I could use MY abilities and we could be a pretty good team as she had no vision, no imagination, and no sense of humor.

Now I get it. Typos really do matter a LOT at the “end of the day.”

My little book of (cynical) stories, Luv’, which has mostly been given away (one person bought it for Kindle) has myriad typos in spite of most of the stories having been read not just by me but by others. I happened to take it to the doctor with me Monday because it was handy when I was leaving. I was reading (and enjoying) a story and BAM! typo.

But in more significant thinking, today it hit me that allowing my personal failings and the failings of the world at large to keep me from doing something I love is really stupid. Pretty much everything we do is pointless, actually, even if it’s successful. Life is pointless. I mean here we are, we do our thing, we save the world or ruin it, one way or the other (we believe) and the whole thing fills in ultimately like water in a hollow. There is no point in our existence at all except procreation, so the next guys can go out in their search for meaning and the discovery that meaning is subjective. Really the best we can do is not make our lives or the lives of others worse. That’s it. It’s not nothing, by any means.

So as Baudelaire’s poem, Enivrez Vous went wafting through my mind this morning I got the message (again?). “The only way to bear the heavy burden of time that crushes you to the ground is to be intoxicated without stopping, but on what? On wine, on poetry, or virtue, whatever you prefer, but intoxicate yourself!”

Pour ne pas sentir l’horrible fardeau du Temps qui brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans trêve.
Mais de quoi? De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu, à votre guise. Mais enivrez-vous!

28 thoughts on “Writing

  1. Proofreading — as opposed to editing — is a separate skill. I am a terrible proofreader and always have been, I was lucky in that I worked with developers who might not be writers, but they never missed an extra space, a misplaced comma, or a dash where there should have been a bracket. And occasionally, I had a really GOOD editor and OH what a difference a good editor can make to the quality of your work. I complained, I bitched, I whined, a railed … and then I did it.

    Wow, what an improvement.

    Many editors are NOT good proofreaders. A good copy editor — which you are and I am — can make the words sound like a symphony orchestra. But we’ll miss the typos and so will our friends who are ALSO writers. Garry read my book out loud word for word … and he STILL miss a couple of dozen typos.

    It isn’t a failure. You either can or you can’t. You and I read text is clumps. We read for meaning, we read for the way the sentences flow together and the paragraphs and pages flow into each other. A great proofreader read word by word. They may completely miss your music, but they will find every typo, every missing period, comma, or parenthesis.

    Bottom line: it’s not your fault. If you can’t, no amount of banging your head is going to make it happen. It’s actually a lot harder to find a great proofreader than a great copy or line editor.

    • You’re absolutely right. My editor is a good proofreader and a good editor, but I can’t afford to have her edit everything I write, so I wish I were better at it.

      I was thinking of another boss who, at first, was infuriated at my proofreading then one day realized I could compose his letters better than he could. We kind of switched places when it came to composing…

      This has been a long haul, this late-life existential crisis, really hard. I would not do it again. My sport is relegated to riding a stationary bike and saying “Well, at least I can ride a stationary bike!” Doing simple yoga and saying, “At least I can touch my toes AND I can get up off the floor!!” Mile-walks with my dogs, and my neighbor says (correctly), “At least you’re out there!” and she’s right. It’s like the Theodore Dreiser story about the man who’s wife (whom the man hated) died and the man — 60 something — just thought, “Free! I’m free!” then looked in the mirror. This moment of life is really about seeing reality, and there’s no way to look at it obliquely. And I do feel sorry for myself on some level (even though it’s useless and somewhat silly) because there is NO negotiating between the abilities I want and those I have. And I’m NOT a proofreader. 🙂

      • Well, at least you don’t have cancer and a broken heart (more literally than figuratively). I had a lot of negotiating to do with my abilities vs. my interests. But unless I wanted to be in a morbid depression all the time, I had to decide that what I do is not so bad. It’s more than a lot of people can do and I don’t mean OLD people, either.

      • That’s true but there are other issues. It’s crazy to compare miseries. You are ahead of me on this journey, and I think it’s a journey that each of us has to work through on her own. I have been in a semi-morbid depression for the past several months. It’s been hard to shake it off. I know part of it has been caused by an inexpressible and useless anger. Some of it is linked to what I’m no longer able to do. Some of it related to arthritis pain and the fact that I can’t take NSAIDS that would relieve it. It’s like wherever I go, there I am. 🙂 It doesn’t matter. I’m honestly very fucking tired of this life, but I’m still here and it’s up to me to make it better for myself.

  2. It’s a Yoda thing – ‘Do, or do not, there is no try.’
    If we were perfect …
    If we weren’t storytellers …
    I always try to remember whoever it was who said: Good grammar does not a good story make. We do our best, but I have yet to read a book (any book!) with not a single error. Not one, and I have read many, many books (avg 5-10 per month, fiction, non-fiction, memoir, primary sources, etc. for 40 years+ [had to go to work sometimes, otherwise …]).

      • I’d like to reinterpret Yoda – The doing is in the doing of it, not the trying to be perfect. We do our best. As a reader, I tend to ignore the little mistakes (and I know I’m not perfect, never will be, not even in my wildest dreams. We can also not be responsible for another’s reactions to things, nor do we need to worry about it). Think on this: How many people finish their [first] novel? Less than 2% – so anyone who gets past that first novel, that first publication – they’ve gone beyond the trying, and have Done the thing, written ‘the end’ and gone on to the next thing to be done. The ‘do’ is in the doing of it, and only that. You hold the force of the words, and you have set them free …
        Yes, I’m a bit nuts (is that part of being a writer?), but I live with it.

      • One morning I woke up and realized that a lot of great writers write one book and they’re never up to the pressure of writing another one. I’ve written 3 novels and two other things. The novels are good serious fiction but they didn’t prove salable, but they all won awards. The other two? One is a collection of short stories (a small one) that I just wanted to put together because I saw a theme in some of my short stories and thought they should be collected. The other is nature writing, again, because I wanted to. I don’t think you’re nuts. Everything you’ve written here is wise and true. 🙂

      • Thank you – I think ‘a lot of great writers’ spend ten or more years on their one great book, and can’t face the idea of having to produce to the same level of commitment (and time).
        I’ve written four novels, unpublished three (too serious), five anthologies, unpublished three (too serious), and continue to work as a storyteller – ‘cos I just can’t stop them spilling out. I’ve earned out my 10,000 hours on the craft, and now I do it for … fun (please believe that, or call it OCD), but I’ve been a writer since I was 8 years old, and can’t believe I didn’t ‘produce’ sooner. Maybe I had to learn to live life before the universe called upon my manic mind to share some of it … hmmmm bears some thoughts, that does. Anyhow, don’t give up – we need as many storytellers as we can get.

      • There is the fact that once a writer succeeds with the public he or she is no longer his own person, free to write what he wants. I started writing before I could read. I had a wonderful father who read my scribbles back to me so I could hear what I wrote. I guess he made up good stories! 🙂

  3. Yes, all of that. I had my major existential crisis a long time ago (I’m older than you) and find that once you realise life has no ‘oh my god that’s it’ meaning, it adds its bit to your less buoyant moments forever. And I’ve never found the ‘at leasts’ helpful. They just add a layer of guilt for not being more grateful for the half loaf. (I always did find Pollyanna a nauseating and unnatural brat.) Feeling sorry for yourself seems pretty inevitable to me. Circumstance is messing with all the things you might have got drunk on. But it will pass. It always does.
    I am having trouble at the moment readjusting to my own life (yes, bizarre) having spent the winter in Sydney looking after my sister. Can’t rev myself up enough to embrace my usual distractions. But something will kick me into action sooner or later. Probably boredom. Not enjoying it, though.
    As for proofreading – I don’t think any of us can proofread our own stuff. Or edit it. We see what we expect to see.

    • It’s true. Circumstance has been messing with a lot of the stuff I might have gotten drunk on… Really all that still works is being outside with the dogs.

      I understand the adjustment problem. I always found life easier when someone else was the focus of my effort. It was really clarifying. I knew what I had to do and what I was working toward, but it’s also psychically tiring and when it’s over, I often felt kind of disoriented.

  4. I’ve proofed and edited for others, fiction and non. I enjoyed the task, for I am a grammarly guy. I guess it goes back to my days on the high school paper. I was page-three editor: features and editorials. That was good. I’ve never been good with fiction, so I do proofing mostly. An economics text, that was difficult, and a history of Hooters restaurants, which was eye-opening. How about them… That was fun. A history book I helped with. I like your blog, Martha. I changed my picture to an anonymous interrabang. Then I really thought about it–and how neat your picture was, and your story about “abuse.” I said, readers gotta see the authors, no matter what Joseph Epstein believes. So, I have a new recent picture. Hope you like, “Here’s lookin’ at ya’, kid.”

  5. I can’t proofread. It is a fact. I especially can’t proofread myself, at least not until it is set in print and too late to deal with.

  6. Love this – “Really the best we can do is not make our lives or the lives of others worse. That’s it. It’s not nothing, by any means.”

    I know this is a famous line of something important (doctor’s oath?) – “First, do no harm.” Your words made me think of that. It’s what I mostly try to do – no harm. As long as I’m doing no harm, maybe I’m actually helping, I figure. That thought is what closes my mouth when I want to complain and stops me from reacting when I’m irritated (generally by the behavoirs of younger people, my kids, or a dog).

    As far as proofreading, life is much too short to stress it. If no one is paying for it (i.e. blog writing), I don’t feel so bad if they have to suffer through a few typos.

    Keep writing.

    • But I think I've realized I'm unlikely ever to get better at finding small typos. I am going to ask for help. The little project I'm working on now means a lot to me even though I'm not going to try to sell it. Going through it and finding these things has felt like self-betrayal.

      "Do no harm" was the focal point for a lecture I gave a business communication class back in 2005 — Powerpoint and all. The circumstances were very ugly, horrible. I don't know if it penetrated their brains or not, but it was, to me, so clearly the starting point for every decision. Sometimes it's difficult to know what will or will not cause harm.

  7. I think Yoda’s comment is more on the lines of it’s more important to do stuff than try. Don’t worry about the petty details unless it’s misrepresenting your meaning. Don’t stop writing it is our legacy to the world. Where would you be if you never spoke to anyone because you were scared of making a grammatical mistake? Not only would you be isolated, but most people wouldn’t know you as a person.

      • I just pasted a 100+ page document into it that’s been proofed very carefully and in which there should no longer be any errors. Your app didn’t find any. I also pasted the blog post you read and found one syntactical comment and somethings the app didn’t like about my spelling. Then I pasted in another piece that hadn’t really been gone over much. I like it because it’s not complicated, it was accurate and it was easy. I’ll keep using it. 🙂

      • I just checked the code. The limit is set at 50,000 characters. If the text is bigger, the app will simply ignore everything and skip it.

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