“What a story is ‘about’ is to be found in the curiosity it creates in us, which is a form of caring.”
As living stories, we move around a richly storied landscape. Every human life is an autogenerated tale of meaning — we string the chance-events of our lives into a sensical and coherent narrative of who and what we are, then make that narrative the psychological pillar of our identity. Every civilization is a macrocosm of the narrative — we string together our collective selective memory into what we call history, using storytelling as a survival mechanism for its injustices. Along the way, we hum a handful of impressions — a tiny fraction of all knowable truth, sieved by the merciless discriminator of our attention and warped by our personal and cultural histories — into a melody of comprehension that we mistake for the symphony of reality.
Without preying upon this instinct, great storytelling taps into that element of human nature. Amazing storytelling can make us more able to see the truth in our creations, more able and abler to live between the low notes and the loud tones, more able and more fulfilling to feel.
This is the essence of it all George Saunders explores throughout A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (public library) — his wondrous investigation of what makes a good story (which is, by virtue of Saunders being helplessly himself, a wondrous investigation of what makes a good life) through a close and contemplative reading of seven classic Russian short stories, examined as “seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art — namely, to ask the big questions.” Questions like what truth is and why we love. It’s difficult to know how to live in this world and make sense of it. Questions like:
What is the best way to find joy in a world where we are expected to love others but end up separating ourselves from them?
Noting that “all coherent intellectual work begins with a genuine reaction,” Saunders frames the central question of his investigation: what we feel and when we feel it, in a story or in the macrocosm of a story that is a life — a framing that calls to mind philosopher Susanne Langer’s notion of music as “a laboratory for feeling in time,” for all great storytelling, as Maurice Sendak observed, is a work of musicality, and all that fills the brief interlude between birth and death is, in anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s lovely phrasing, the work of “composing a life.” In this sense, a story is instrument for feeling — something Saunders places at the heart of his creative theorem:
What a story is “about” is to be found in the curiosity it creates in us, which is a form of caring.
Saunders writes about this concordance between storytelling, life, and the parallels between how the worlds of fiction and the worlds in real life.
To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works: the way it evaluates a statement for truth, the way it behaves in relation to another mind (i.e., the writer’s) across space and time… The part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.
With an eye to how a story makes its meaning — small structural pulses appearing in sequence, at speed, to give rise to a set of expectations and resolutions — he writes:
The story is linear-temporal phenomena. It proceeds, and charms us (or doesn’t), a line at a time.
One way to think about a story is as a mechanism for energy transfer. The trick is to make energy in the first pages.
A story’s true beauty lies not in how it ends, but rather in what happens to the mind of its readers.
This transfer of energy, this transmutation of understanding, is, of course, the mystique and mechanism by which all art moves us — a story, a song, a poem, a painting. Learning to be present with it, to notice the pulses that move the mind into thought and feeling, refines our ability to attend not only to art but to the world — for, as neuroscientist Christof Koch readily reminds us, “consciousness is the central fact of your life.” Saunders writes:
The story is made up of many small pulses that each do something for us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were… We watch the way the deep, honest part of our mind reacts to it. This is the part that writing and reading refine to sharpness.
The story can reach this honest part of our minds and only by deignifying the reader mind is it able to move them. E.B. White was a generation ahead of Saunders. White — one of the most singular and splendid storytellers of all time, and one of the most beloved children’s book authors — insisted that in order to write well for any reader, but especially for that most alert and honest-minded of readers, the child, “you have to write up, not down.” (This I consider also the key to great science-storytelling, and especially to the rare intersection of the two.) Defining a story as “an ongoing communication between two minds,”Saunders says:
An intimate and honest conversation between equals is called a story. Because we feel valued by the author, we keep reading.
Performing an artistic anatomy of Chekhov’s spare and stunning story “The Darling,” Saunders examines how a writer makes this conversation compelling and offers his most direct instruction for storytelling:
Never stop escalating. That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation. The story’s prose is a part of the narrative if it helps us to feel that the story (still) has an escalating pace.
What It isWhat is escalation? What is the secret to creating an illusion of escalation in a story? … One answer: refuse to repeat beats. Once a story has moved forward, through some fundamental change in the character’s condition, we don’t get to enact that change again. And we don’t get to stay there elaborating on that state.
Escalation is also what gives a story the undertone of causality — that satisfying feeling of things making sense, because a thing has been caused by some prior thing. The most fundamental question for every child: How can we make our child live in the present? All causality offers a solution, stimulating and pacifying. Why?
Examining the art of escalation through the lens of his definition of a story as “a process for the transfer of energy,” Saunders returns to the rhythmic dynamism driving all great storytelling:
In a good story, the writer makes energy in a beat, then transfers this energy cleanly to the next one (the energy is “conserved”). She does this by being aware of the nature of the energy she’s made. In a bad story (or an early draft), the writer doesn’t fully understand the nature of the energy she’s made, and ignores or misuses it, and it dissipates.
For a beat, the preferred and most efficient form of energy transfer, which is the best way to move a scene forward in a nontrivial fashion, is to use it. causeIf the next beat feels essential (i.e. as an escalation; a significant alteration to the story’s terms), then it should be.
Coupling the importance of causality with his credo that the storytelling process is a matter of “intuition plus iteration,” Saunders echoes James Baldwin’s bellowing admonition to writers that “beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance,” and reflects:
I’ve worked with so many wildly talented young writers over the years that I feel qualified to say that there are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t.
The first is a willingness and ability to change.
Second, how far the writer is able to establish causality.
Making causality doesn’t seem sexy or particularly literary. It’s a workmanlike thing, to make A cause B, the stuff of vaudeville, of Hollywood. But it’s the hardest thing to learn. It doesn’t come naturally, not to most of us. But that’s really all a story is: a series of things that happen in sequence, in which we can discern a pattern of causality. For most of us, the problem is not in making things happen (“A dog barked,” “The house exploded,” “Darren kicked the tire of his car” are all easy enough to type) but in making one thing seem to cause the next.
Causation creates meaning.
The writer’s causality is like the songwriter’s melody. It is the superpower the audience has to feel for. This is the reason the audience shows up; it is the most difficult thing to do. It is what distinguishes the skilled practitioner from the exceptional.
Read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, read the seven Russian treasures of storytelling in it and Saunders’s sensitive disassembly of their machinery of magic, then revisit Chekhov’s six rules for a compelling story, Susan Sontag on storytelling and how to be a good human being, and the pioneering cognitive scientist Jerome Bruner on the psychology of what makes a great story.
Giving = Being Loving
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