Wow, folks, here it is already. How did it sneak up on me? Oh yeah: I’ve been really busy. But you knew that already, since it’s been so long since I’ve written.
I feel like I owe you an explanation—but that would be really boring. I’ve had some big work deadlines—the kind where you have to stay up late staring at a computer and shuffling through mountains of papers. The kind where the project gets increasingly, nightmarishly complicated and problematic before it can become intelligible and orderly, ready to leave your desk.
To make the past week more difficult, some smaller projects came up out of the blue. To be honest, those were more interesting that the big thing that was seeming old by now, and I enjoyed them—in some respects, just because they represented a change of subject. But it all combined to make for a big work crunch, that ol’ freelancer “feast-or-famine” thing. Hence the long nights.
Up until very recently, I have managed to stay away from the so-called energy drinks, but I’ve been abusing Red Bulls recently. And I’ve found out that although Red Bull “gives you wings,” it also gives you the jitters and heart palpitations! But you know how it is: Sometimes we have to abuse ourselves to meet the all-important deadlines. Right?
I’ve always kind of assumed that the term deadline meant that “if you don’t get this done on time, heads will roll.” But I’m beginning to see that isn’t really the case. Seriously: What’s another damn day? No one gets killed when a work deadline is missed. (Well, unless you’re a surgeon, or someone in charge of delivering a vital organ needed ASAP for transplant purposes.) The very worst that could happen is something financial, a loss of funding, a loss of a job.
Instead, I think that the term deadline has more to do with what happens to us, cumulatively, after decades of that kind of stress—abuse, really.
On the first day of my first job in publishing—right out of grad school—I was shown to my new desk, which I had inherited from my predecessor. The desktop was clean except for some dust, a stapler, a tape dispenser, and the phone with all its unnecessary buttons. I opened the desk drawers and found a dish of paperclips, some chewed-up pencils with the erasers worn off, and a bottle of Excedrin with just a few tablets left to rattle around in it. Sliding around next to a dog-eared pad of post-its were some mint-green Tums, dusty from being loose in the drawer.
That all should have been a clue right there. But I was convinced that my graduate-school training would make me different from my predecessor. I had been taught the correct procedures for my job—I had learned not only the substance of book editing (how to copyedit, how to proof—those two things are different, you know—how to index, etc.) but also the procedures. Editors, by nature, are rule- and procedures-oriented. We like checklists. We like workflow elegance, streamlined with an engineer’s precision.
I had been taught the time-honored, standard, logical sequences for bookmaking. When the manuscript arrives, this, this, and this happen, usually simultaneously, first. The editorial department does this, the marketing department does that, and the production department does something else. And so on down the line—first the copyediting, then the author review, and then you enter all the final corrections. Then the manuscript goes to the production department for page layout, and after that, there’s the page proofing. Blah, blah, blah. The details vary, but the process is the same, if you want to be efficient about it.
But then, just a few weeks into my first job, my supervisor was telling me, “well, this manuscript doesn’t need ‘copyediting.’ I think it just needs a light proofing; then it can go straight into production.” I followed his instructions, though I did know better. I told the copyeditor to do only a proofreading, and sure enough, weeks later, the proofreader was informing me that the page proof needed a copyedit.
It soon became clear to me that the bitten pencils, the spent Excedrin bottle, and the miscellaneous Tums were symbols of a companywide dysfunction, to which I was not immune. Within a year, it got to the point where I couldn’t quite tell if my smiles were genuine, or only camouflaged grimaces.
That life was brought back to me with this most recent push, the late-night rubbing of eyes and temples, the concerned e-mails from my client, my reassuring e-mails in response. It would get done on time, and I knew it. Whatever dysfunction or miscommunications had created the distressing situation, it was my job to get it resolved.
So I did the work and got it all off my desk and onto my client’s. It is in a much better and more organized condition than it was when I received it. What a great feeling! Just in time for the holidays.
It’s not that I enjoy the stress and late nights, the anxiety of a thousand questions that each give birth to five more, as the time is ticking down—but completion and cleaning off my desk does give me a little extra something to be grateful for when we offer up our thanks before the sacrificial turkey.
And I hope you have a little extra something to be thankful for, too.