The great American 20th Century writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was my first literary hero. I read “Breakfast of Champions” while I was still at school, about fifteen years old. I drew more and more from his work as I got older and more experienced in life, revelling in such novels as Bluebeard, Slaughterhouse-Five and my personal favourite, Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!
The last work of his I read was Timequake, a semi-autobiographical work which occurs in the midst of a cataclysmic time reversal in 2001. The Universe abruptly reverts to 1990, and people must consciously live their lives again without being able to change a single thought or action, even though they know exactly what will happen. It is typical of his absurd novels – free will is gone, and everyone must relive every moment of their lives as participatory spectators, enchanted and appalled in turn, powerless to stop anything from happening. People live on autopilot, as he puts it, for over a decade until the timeline catches up and free will is restored again. Needless to say, chaos and destruction ensue as an entire world that has forgotten how to live suddenly has to wake up to a new and uncertain reality.
Timequake was also notable for an insight he offers into the creative process of different writers, whom he divides into “Swoopers” and “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.”
He declares himself to be a Basher. How I envy Bashers for their self-discipline, control, and mastery. I’m clearly a Swooper. I write according to the “successive drafts” model, whereby the first draft is simply an undisciplined splurge of language just to get the story on paper. I then write successive iterations, slowly wringing the finished article from the swirling morass of ideas, sentences and linking passages. It’s safe to say that the finished book bears but an incidental resemblance to the original first draft.
To be a Basher, then, is to have complete mastery. Language, storytelling, structure, characters, conflicts and outcomes must already be firmly cast in the author’s mind in order to craft each and every sentence into the whole at the time of writing. The first draft is essentially the final draft. Like a handwritten or mechanically typed manuscript, each line matters, and when it’s written, it stays written.
I envy the ability of anyone to hold such mastery, but I know it’s pointless to aspire to such lofty heights. Because I am a swooper. My story ideas excite me, and I have to begin writing. I am chaotic, passionate, and undisciplined with my words and ideas. They don’t even take shape until they are on the page. It’s the literary equivalent of thinking out loud.
I think swoopers live at the cutting edge of the Vonnegutian timequake. Nothing is established. Nothing is set in stone. The die is most certainly not cast. Anything is possible, right up to the moment of publication. The bashers, on the other hand, write on autopilot. Whilst not inflexible, there is scant allowance for spontaneous frivolity or flights of fancy; every sentence is set like a brick in the wall, dependent on its neighbours for mutual support or the entire edifice falls down.
The world changes and keeps changing rapidly. Humanity always has a choice, and no choice is irreversible, at least for a time. Better to keep a swoopers mentality, even if the process is more chaotic; even in the most intractable of circumstances, a swooper can clear the page and write what matters there and then, adapting the script to suit the times. Basher, beware!