Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Teaching creative writing this winter term, I came to understand how many writers (me included) construct their first drafts of a work of fiction.  Once the "concept" has been worked out, the characters given flesh and a little bit of clothing, and some elements of the story's arc have been carved out of stone so that the structure will stand, they start a kind of virtual movie in their heads and record what they see. Under these conditions, many of us write like swoopers.  Given the distance between "story" or "plot" or "tale" and "work of art," this approach to drafting requires a fair amount of revision.  For one of our final classes this April, we read Jack Hodgins's helpful chapter on revision in A Passion for Narrative and talked about why revising is so hard.  Hodgins quotes William C. Knott on the importance of revision:  "Anyone can write--and almost everyone you meet these days is writing. However, only the writers know how to rewrite.  It is this ability alone that turns the amateur into a pro."  I'm inclined to agree, though I go at this issue from a more hopeful perspective.  A draft is a wonderful thing because now you have something that you can transform into something better; unless you have deadlines, there are no limits to the improvements you can make. In theory anyway.

It would be easy to see the wired twenty-first century as revision-averse.  I have long suspected that the focus in our schools on self-esteem works against an ethic of revision.  If I'm okay just as I am, isn't the work that just pours out of me going to be okay too?  Certainly, this attitude accounts for some of the weak and thoughtless writing that I see.  Who revises tweets or Facebook status updates? Yet people who study our relationship with the computer keyboard note that strong writers bring their inner basher into play; the key they hit most frequently is the backspace key, constantly erasing a word choice, an ineffective sentence structure, an ungrammatical sentence.

If "the school of self-esteem" says our effort itself counts, revising requires us constantly and painfully to second-guess ourselves, to consider whether our initial understanding of character was shallow (and to admit we might not know where the depths are) or that a plot line had some unintended consequences.  We may have an interesting story line, but until we ourselves understand what this story is about, we don't know which of its elements need the emphasis of a scene, which elements are mere background--and thus should be presented as summary.  We also don't understand the relationship between character and event, or between event and character, until we learn how the story's microcosm works, what rules its meaning imposes or suggests.  Setting is just a place until we have thought about the connection between place and character, place and event.  (Hodgins's book is particularly good on this issue of the role of setting.)

The cognitive psychologists can give us some insight.  Swoopers draft using what Daniel Kahneman calls system 1, which is intuitive and subconscious, which makes snap decisions and goes like stink. System 1 works with stereotypes (not great for creating complex characters).  We feel confident when we're in the "flow" of system 1 thinking.   When we shift to system 2 thinking, for the conclusion to a paper or the rounding out of character or the querying of all the choices we've made in a piece of writing, we are not comfortable. System 2 thinking is deliberate and painstaking as we second-guess ourselves at every turn.  We can get to the point where we question everything, which can paralyse us.

Fiction exists on four interlocking levels.  Words and sentences establish voice and tone.  In turn, both voice and tone have some impact on how we construct paragraphs and scenes; at the very least, these need to be in harmony or need to conflict in a meaningful or significant way.  Scenes, in turn, need to contribute purposefully to the overall narrative shape.  So far, so good.  Here we have what Roger Fry, the art critic who was one of Virginia Woolf's mentors, calls "design." Craftsmanship can take us this far.

Fry, along with Virginia Woolf's brother-in-law, Clive Bell, was one of the founders of formalism, a view of the work of art which paid more attention to the work's form than artists and critics had previously.  Before those two began to think about what Bell termed "significant form," literature was regarded mainly for its content, visual art for its style of representation and the technique through which the artist captured the world as you yourself might see it.  In the early 1920s, Fry gathered together his formalist essays in a book he called Vision and Design, two words he was at pains to define.  These words seem almost parallel to "content" and "form," words that also challenge aesthetic philosophers, largely because the form the content takes has an enormous impact on the content itself.  We could also translate Fry's dyad into "philosophy," "worldview" or "insight," and "craftsmanship." "Vision" refers to the artist's ability to communicate something significant about the human condition, the artist's ability to see or to illuminate something significant that hasn't been expressed before in quite this way.  Vision takes us by surprise, yet confirms something we almost knew.  Vision gives us a sense that there is a view of the world--a compelling, engaging, important view of the world--that is different from the one we use every day.  Design could be taken to mean the artist's control of craftsmanship.  Except that we need to see that vision and design are not two separate things, but two speakers in a single conversation.

In To the Lighthouse, we see Lily Briscoe ecstatically struggling with the same problem of vision and design, form and content: "Heaven be praised for it, the problem of space remained, she thought, taking  up her brush again. It glared at her.  The whole mass of the picture was poised upon that weight.  Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly's wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron.  It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses" (141).  While I always feel sure, for a lot of good reasons, that Woolf is mapping Lily's aesthetics onto Fry's, every time I read this passage, I see it a bit differently. The artwork has something solid about it, something concrete; given her metaphors, this is something structural, related to design.  At the same time, there's something ineffable to the work of art that can't be said any other way.  You probably know this best as readers:  you can paraphrase a poem or tell your best friend the "premise" of a novel, but that isn't the same as the novel or the poem itself, which always gestures towards a mystery that makes you smile but that you can't quite articulate.

Fry's conversational pair suggests the real reason that revision is so hard.  At some point in your improvement of your craftsmanship--your evocation of character or place, the voice you have decided on to tell this story, your elegant or edgy sentences--it may occur to you that you actually have nothing to say. You've sculpted a wonderful vase, but you have nothing to put in it.  You've caught exactly the tone of twentysomethings talking to one another, but what's the significance of this conversation?  Why try to capture it?

A draft can exist as pure potential.  There's nothing threatening about the fact that a draft is full of holes and blanks and grand effects that have nothing behind them. It's a draft; it's likely to be a bit drafty.  But once we've gone to work on it, we have fewer excuses.  (I sometimes think that one of the motives behind student procrastination is to create an excuse:  "It could have been a great paper if I'd only had enough time."  Maybe not.  But having taught my last class, that's not a blog post I'll ever have to write.)  Once our craftsmanship comes into play, we too have to create the conversation between design and vision.  They are only meaningful when they create a harmony or a dissonance together. I'm not sure that craftsmanship actually exists without some vision the writer wants to convey.  And a great insight, without the design of craftsmanship, may not even exist.

Here's the wonderful thing about craftsmanship:  it can lead to vision.  While you mull over the fact that you haven't drawn that character successfully onto the page, you are also forced to think more fully about that mass of words that is supposed to represent a human being.  And as you think about the words, as you pause, and stare, and hit the backspace key when you start the next sentence wrongly for the fifth time, you are also likely to be thinking about the human itself, about how wonderfully contradictory and puzzling it is.  And presto!  There's a bit of vision.  As you realize that your narrative arc starts too far back to pull your reader in immediately, you think about the shapes of the stories we tell, and about why you want to tell your story with this shape, not that.  The fictional world requires it.  More vision.  Revising is hard because it's hard, because you are handling a text with so many layers or strands.  And the risks are so high.  But the rewards are even greater.

Here's the link to an earlier blog post that talked about Kurt Vonnegut's ideas about swoopers and bashers.

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