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.