#157: The Added Comma

A few weeks ago I was talking with a new friend about what it’s like to work on a novel, and the friend brought up a story about the time J.D. Salinger got a manuscript back and found that a comma had been added without the author’s approval. Salinger’s furious, he goes back to his editor and makes him take out the comma. It’s supposed to highlight two aspects of Salinger’s personage, this story – his thorough knowledge of The Work, down to the last comma, and that, well, the dude’s kind of a control freak.

I want to focus on that first bit, because I don’t think spotting an added comma is all that unusual anymore. When you’ve read a manuscript from start to finish dozens of times, as you do over years of working on it, you start to know it the way one might know a favorite hiking trail. Every time you walk the trail it starts resolving itself in full detail – there’s that mossy rock again. Ah yes, this line break. When something’s not where it’s supposed to be, you notice.

The limit of this analogy is that you don’t hang your identity on a hiking trail the way you do on a creative work. On a trail you’re more the outside observer of changes, of random acts of nature. With a novel you’re the principal agent, even with the rains and sometimes lightning of good feedback. You shoulder more responsibility for what has happened and will happen.

It’s more like a breakup. Or a hundred mini-breakups. And for me, much of the struggle of revising a piece of writing is resisting the urge to get back together, to go running back to the old words, to drive three hours to sit on their doorstep and wait for them to get home. That feeling in the pit of your stomach may be the loss of something essential, but often it’s just the loss of something familiar.

Sometimes the best thing is not to do anything, for a while. To let the changes settle, to let your life start grow around the void. I find it helpful to assume that feedback is valid, to assume the cuts are necessary. I go into the menu and set Track Changes to “Final” and read the manuscript with my editors’ suggestions as if they were final, as if I were the editor, now getting back a manuscript someone else has written.

It works, kind of. The gaps close themselves in most cases, and with a couple reads I hardly miss the old words. But in some instances the loss of even a comma remains so striking, so fresh and familiar on rereading that I immediately prepare to launch into my overture again, justify why the taken-out thing needs to return. Perhaps these are the signals that something essential has indeed been lost, and needs to be reinstated, or reconsidered. Or maybe grieved?

I don’t know yet. But work continues, and so do I.