Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Mrs Dalloway and the Swoopers and Bashers

I'm revising the Mrs Dalloway chapter, so I have a very clean office.

All of you who write will realize that's not really a non sequitor.  Last Friday and  yesterday I gave myself the whole day to work on revising the chapter, and so accomplished lots of other things, sometimes avoiding revising, sometimes doing something stupid (like rearranging two of Bill's jars of change into a jar of nickles and dimes and a jar of pennies for United Way while I put the quarters aside for parking meters) while I tried to think.  I have the structure of the chapter down and most of the evidence is in place.  What I need to do is to think more fully about the significance, the implications of this evidence.  This is both the hardest and the most important work a writer of literary criticism needs to do.  It's also rewarding when you stare at you computer monitor for fifteen minutes, type out two sentences and then tell no one who's listening "Ha!"  In those moments the world suddenly opens out and I have a sense of the role of form in Virginia Woolf's work and a sense of how she wants us to engage with her text and of what puzzles she's left for us to play with.

But continuing in this way is not a very efficient use of time.  I have the extra library books back to the library, the coins sorted,  books returned to colleagues  (sad to say I will not be reading Guy Gavriel Kay during this sabbatical), several rows done on a sock that I keep in my office to knit when I feel panic coming on.  I come home on these days seriously impatient with my lack of discipline and focus.  I can't go on like this, I say to myself, feeling the To the Lighthouse chapter almost ready for drafting.  So today I hit on a new technique.  I read Lighthouse criticism this morning--some of it startlingly good and very helpful in my discussion of Woolf's vision of the autonomous work of art, but not quite on topic--which is the best for me.  After my mid-week lunch with Veronica, I gave myself two hours in my office to revise before going home to hang out with traumatized cats and do more reading.  In two hours I got a lot done and didn't wander the hallways disconsolately or look at a single penny.

Sometimes I think that one of the differences between writers and non-writers isn't some gift for language or profound desire to create literature, but simply the common sense to re-make or rearrange one's writing habits when whatever you're doing isn't working.   How you do this depends on whether you're a swooper or a basher, categories defined by Kurt Vonnegut in Timequake and drawn to my attention by my colleague Craig Melhof.  Here's what Vonnegut says:

Tellers of stories with ink on paper, not that they matter anymore, have been either swoopers or bashers.  Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way.  Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn't work.  Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one.  When they're done they're done.  I am a basher.  Most men are bashers, and most women are swoopers.  Again:  Somebody should look into this. 

I find his assignment of gender interesting.  On one hand, he's right:  I'm a woman and I'm a swooper.  I need the larger shape of an argment or a plot to ground me.  It's a bit like Leonardo sketching a cartoon of a painting he wants to make--though that's just a simile, not my claim to genius.  Then when I know what the bigger argument is all about, I'm happy to tinker, tinker, tinker, playing with wording, creating an emphasis here, an echo there, fleshing out a summary to create a scene or reducing a lengthy scene into a brief summary.  I have a mantra:  the larger, grander idea I want everything to be suspended from in the most elegant and natural  and light-hearted way possible. 

But my daughter Veronica is a basher.  Everything she writes is so densely inter-woven that she feels she can only build from the firm foundation of everything that's gone before.  Here's the real difference between bashers and swoopers that I see:  I have a hunch, an intuition.  I've looked at the evidence or thought long and hard about my characters and my idea, and I'm willing to fly off on a wing and a prayer.  It's only a draft, after all.  A draft is just something you can make better.  Veronica, in contrast, is very linear.  Hunches aren't worth much (not even that whole JAR of pennies) in her writing universe.   

Writing this, I realize that there are some times when I bash:  when I'm writing poetry.  Then I've got a prompt--a vision, one of Veronica's photographs, half a sentence I overheard someone utter--and I have to figure out what it means, what its significance is.  I bash off a little kernel, trying to get every word right and to see where those words want to go.  Then I bash off a little more around the edges to see where its balance point is, its centre of gravity.  Then more careful bashing and re-bashing.

So here's this week's quandary:  are you a basher or a swooper?  Is Vonnegut mostly right about gender?  Does your decision to bash or swoop depend on what you're writing?  I'll be teaching nonfiction in the fall, so fill me in on all the various bashing and swooping you do so I can help my students find their own useful method.


  1. I always enjoy reading about someone's writing process. Thanks for sharing.

    I don't think of myself as a writer, actually, but as someone who fairly often expresses herself by writing letters and journals. A writer seems to me to be someone with a strong viewpoint, something to say, and a special talent with articulation, whereas I'm just chatting, recording, sharing.

    But if I were a writer by profession, I'd definitely be a swooper. I know I never get it totally right the first time, and can always improve on most things I've written.

  2. Swooper no doubt about it;). Wonderful woods dancing across your page, no surprise!

  3. I'm a swooper. I can morph into a basher when deadlines loom.

  4. Swooper, almost always. Bashing is stressful unless the piece is brief, like a 500 word personal essay or a 1 page poem. I think it comes from trying to stuff too much in, so odd bits are always sticking up and needing to be realigned or trimmed off. Michelle

  5. Swooper, definitely, since there is no "exactly right", is there?

    1. Good to hear from the fellow swoopers! Gerry's point resonates with me: there isn't an "exactly right." There are words, directions, thoughts that take you somewhere else and words and directions that lead to dead ends for the writer--and then of course for the reader.

      Are there no bashers out there?

    2. Since you've already outed me as a basher, I'll put in my two cents. I'm a basher when it comes to writing something down, yes, but I can only do that because I've already done the swooping. For me, the writing process is only a part of the creative process, and very nearly the only creativity that happens on the page is my choice of words and sentence structure. By the time I sit down to write, I have my structure, and my evidence, and most of my conclusions lined up because they've been tumbling about in my brain as "drafts" for days or weeks before hand in between bouts of research to confirm my hunches, with little bits of my eventual structure being refined in the shower or while wandering to the grocery store. This has the problematic side effect of my finding myself at the post office when I was actually going out to buy milk, but it means that by the time I sit down to write, writing is the only thing left for me to do, so I figure I may as well get it right the first time and be done with it. It's not that we bashers don't refine our ideas over time, or don't start with an overall idea or hunch, it's that that process happens before we set pen to paper, or chisel to stone tablet, whichever the case may be.

    3. As a bashing swooper or a swooping basher--which is it?--you're in excellent company. As I re-read Woolf's diaries while I work on the novels, I can see that she swooped for a long time, often while she was walking or doing some everyday errand, long before she began to write. She calls is "making up." She swooped out Orlando over about 5 months, and while she did so, she was making up "The Moths, which became The Waves. The time I'm now reading about, she's exhausted from editing Orlando, but still hasn't put pen to paper or chisel to stone to create her most experimental work.

      Once again, we've come up against the mother/ daughter fact: you have a much better memory than I do. (And in my defense, I'd say that the chapters I'm writing are often 40 pages long.) I'd love to be able to work the way you do: I'd get more walking in, for example.

      Thanks for helping me understand your process. It will help when I teach people who work differently than I do.