Shavin: Moving commas while standing on the Ledge

Shavin: Moving commas while standing on the Ledge

April 21st, 2013 by By Dana Shavin in Life Entertainment

My husband and I have a running list of writing jokes. We pass these back and forth when he's trying to talk me off the Ledge of Despair, my name for the frightfully high psychic shelf where I totter unsteadily above the mental freeway that will spell my certain death if I leap, which is what I want to do.

What drives me out there is my current writing project, languishing next to a letter from a coveted literary agent. In the letter, the agent promises nothing in the way of representation (yet) but alludes to grand possibilities. All I have to do is winnow down my two memoirs (equaling 600 pages) to one heart-stopping, luminous 200-page pearl of literary genius, and then we'll talk.

The first joke is really just one line my husband is fond of tossing out when I'm on the Ledge. "I thank God every day I'm not a writer," he says.

It's funny, yes, but he means it. Because, while we can all agree that writing isn't coal mining (the gold-standard metaphor for "slowest, darkest, dirtiest, most grueling job out there"), he knows it actually kind of is. Not that he's ever tried to be a writer. He hasn't had to. All he's had to do is watch me write, rewrite and revise the same book seven times over the course of 10 years to see the parallels.

The second joke goes like this: A woman calls her husband at work, crying hysterically. "I was ironing when your agent called and without thinking I left the iron on and it caught the shirt on fire and then the curtains and then the whole house! There's nothing left, we're ruined!"

To which the husband says, "My agent called?"

I only need to explain this if you've never spent eight years attempting to flag down a literary agent on the superhighway of traditional publishing. Literary agents are those people tasked with weeding out the 98.2 percent of hopeful writers who will never publish a book from the 1.8 percent of writers who might publish a book if they don't jump from the Ledge first.

Thankfully, I have writer friends who understand these insidious odds and how they carve away at your soul. Just yesterday I ran into one of them and we fell into conversation about the strangely rewarding tedium of scratching for structure, arc, narrative, metaphor and meaning. We practically clung to each other as we talked, our eyes wide with the hysteria peculiar to people who are going insane together. Our husbands stood by, watching. Mine turned to hers.

"I thank God every day I'm not a writer," he said.

The third joke, like the first, is really just a one-liner, and I'm always the one to deliver it. It's borrowed from Oscar Wilde, who famously said when asked how his writing was going, "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again."

This, more often than not, is my opening salvo on late afternoon walks with my husband.

"I took a comma out and then put it back in" is shorthand for, "I've been at my computer for six hours and I only got one paragraph written." Which is shorthand for, "I feel like the whole world is moving forward without me while I'm forever rewriting a book I will never finish." Which is code for "I'm on the Ledge."

To which my husband invariably says, "I thank God every day I'm not a writer." Then we laugh, finish our walk and have dinner. And just like that, I'm backed off the Ledge. For the time being, I'm happy, relieved, re-energized. Come the next day I will put on my mining helmet, open my manuscript, and take the comma back out.

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