Uncertainty and Reperception

by James Somers, April 14, 2013

Do you know what happens to a draft in limbo? After you’ve put it to rest, but before it’s been read by anyone else? It goes protean. It goes fucking haywire.

One morning in November 2011 an editor at a big magazine gave me the go-ahead on an article I’d wanted to write. He said hand us something in March, and if it’s good enough, we’ll run it in the June issue.

That was one of the more exciting emails I’d gotten. This was career-launching stuff. I sprung instantly into high gear. I’d never taken a project so seriously; I’d never had cause to. But this one consumed me. I poured hundreds of hours and afterhours into the thing, the deepest preoccupation I’d ever had.

And then one day in early March it was time to hand it in. I sent an 84-kilobyte HTML file to my editor.

The week that followed, before I heard anything back: that’s the limbo I’m talking about. That’s when the draft took on a new weird unstable life, when it teetered wildly between great & awful and coherent & broken as if it wasn’t just one set of 14,000 words but two superposed—a success and, simultaneously, a failure.

It had become a kind of Necker cube. It flipped between two modes depending on when, or how, I looked at it. And whatever my editor said would instantly determine which of these two competing perceptions would stick. He could say the article was bad and I would instantly see it as such, I’d see every part of it as such, I’d see every microdecision I’d made, both within the writing and in my life around it—the coffees I’d decided to drink or not, the calls I’d decided to make or not—as contributing to its overall badness. And likewise if he said it was good.

I mean this literally: during the unstable period I’d get these flashes in my head of some sentence or section I’d written, and—for the very same sentence—either the flash would be golden and nostalgic and I’d be patting myself on the back about how great the thing was or I’d get a pang of shame about it, like the feeling you get when you remember some overearnest voice message you’ve left.

The only other time I’d felt so polarly ambivalent was when I was waiting to hear back from colleges. There was so much calcified me in that admissions file that whatever happened threatened to have this enormous reperceptual leverage, it’d reach back and color so many of my decisions, it’d either validate or expose them all.

There’s something fucked up about that—if nothing else it reveals a potent insecurity, doesn’t it?—but I think it’s also sort of grand and priceless to see the multivalence of your choices, to be almost quantumly uncertain about them. Because once certain things are called good and certain things bad, they have a way of instantly and irrevocably snapping into their appointed place. It’s harder, is what I mean, to see what’s good in a sentence declared to be a problem, or what’s bad about a sentence that’s been praised. When a certain way of seeing gets in your head it can impossible to shake, it can take over like a virus.

Isn’t that part of the reason people love the Necker cube, the fact that it so vividly illustrates its own double-barreledness? I mean the thing literally changes as you look at it, the same damn cube changes. What better reminder than that of the contribution your own mind makes to the way things are, the strength of your own perception?

It’s terrifying to not know whether the work you’ve just turned in is a triumph or an embarrassment. It’s nauseating for a mind to flip back and forth between the two. But there is wisdom and power and a certain kind of humility in being able to see something redemptive about an embarrassingly bad sentence, or something fatal in one that’ll later be called a triumph. To let the simultaneous goodness and badness of a thing fester and bubble awhile.