In the dream I just woke up from, excerpts from comments that, along with a lot of other people, I submitted to a weekly newspaper–in real life, is that how you say it?–have just been published (and in real life they have, though I haven’t seen the results). In the dream I do: My “going to” has been changed to “gonna,” “lasso” to “lassa,” “running” to “runnin’.” This is in the service of making my writing more accessible, less chilly and arcane. I am of course insulted and outraged, until, half-awake, I remember that my principal writing job apparently went south the day before over just these questions.
The occasion was a particularly tricky column, which stood in for the series of columns I’d written, each of which took an editing journey from overdetailed explanation to a certain abstracted, doomstruck, humorless drama. The book that was the occasion for the column was rich, complex, expansive, ambitious, and as driven by doubt as by certainty; I spent weeks looking for a way into the column, and finally found it in an early ‘60s Twilight Zone rerun I couldn’t get out of my head. Premise of show: Guy wakes up hungover and fully clothed in his own bed. He starts to apologize to his wife for being out late; she has no idea who he is and screams at him to get out of the house. In the world at large no one he knows recognizes him, he thinks he’s going nuts, but then he wakes up again and everything’s OK–until he stares in horror at the wife he’s never seen before. Premise of book: Modernist painting from David in revolutionary Paris to Jackson Pollock in postwar New York means to tell us that the world is not as it seems, and neither are we–up to the point of suggesting that for all that matters, neither we nor the world may be at all. As Rod Serling summed up at the end of the Twilight Zone episode, smoke swirling around his head: “A simple bad dream, or the end of the world?” For me, something in between, since these days ordinary life seems pitched at one end of the spectrum or the other.
Every month, I dreaded being told the column I’d submitted didn’t come across, but in every case the editor would mention a line, maybe a throwaway, where the piece seemed on the verge of coming into focus. I’d start over there, and every time the column got better. We could communicate, we could even have conversations worth remembering, but we still didn’t really like the sound of each other’s language–or, like Rod Serling’s poor sap, couldn’t tell if it was him or them.