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A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

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  • The resistance in the stories is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind. (Location 120)
  • In Buddhism, it’s said that a teaching is like “a finger pointing at the moon.” The moon (enlightenment) is the essential thing and the pointing finger is trying to direct us to it, but it’s important not to confuse finger with moon. (Location 186)
  • We could understand a story as simply a series of such expectation/resolution moments. (Location 212)
  • In the first pulse of a story, the writer is like a juggler, throwing bowling pins into the air. The rest of the story is the catching of those pins. At any point in the story, certain pins are up there and we can feel them. We’d better feel them. If not, the story has nothing out of which to make its meaning. (Location 242)
  • We might think of structure as simply: an organizational scheme that allows the story to answer a question it has caused its reader to ask. (Location 323)
  • We might imagine structure as a form of call-and-response. A question arises organically from the story and then the story, very considerately, answers it. If we want to make good structure, we just have to be aware of what question we are causing the reader to ask, then answer that question. (Location 326)
  • The movie producer and all-around mensch Stuart Cornfeld once told me that in a good screenplay, every structural unit needs to do two things: (1) be entertaining in its own right and (2) advance the story in a non-trivial way. (Location 693)
  • Semyon the only peasant, Hanov the only landowner. A story is not like real life; it’s like a table with just a few things on it. The “meaning” of the table is made by the choice of things and their relation to one another. (Location 780)
  • That’s really all a story is: a limited set of elements that we read against one another. (Location 786)
  • (A linked pair of writing dictums: “Don’t make things happen for no reason” and “Having made something happen, make it matter.”) (Location 797)
  • Chekhov once said, “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, it only has to formulate them correctly.” “Formulate them correctly” might be taken to mean: “make us feel the problem fully, without denying any part of it.” (Location 975)
  • The world is full of people with agendas, trying to persuade us to act on their behalf (spend on their behalf, fight and die on their behalf, oppress others on their behalf). But inside us is what Hemingway called a “built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” How do we know something is shit? We watch the way the deep, honest part of our mind reacts to it. And that part of the mind is the one that reading and writing refine into sharpness. (Location 998)
  • Imagine a painting of a tree: a good, tall, healthy oak, standing proud on top of a hill. Now add a second oak to the painting, but…sickly: gnarled, bent, with bare branches. As you look at that painting, your mind will understand it to be “about,” let’s say: vitality vs. weakness. Or: life vs. death. Or: sickness vs. health. It’s a realistic painting of two trees, yes, but there is also a metaphorical meaning implied, by the elements contained in it. We “compare” the two trees (or “compare and contrast” them), at first, anyway, without thought or analysis. We just see them. The two trees stand there in our minds, juxtaposed, meaning by inference. We experience, rather than articulate, the result. The juxtaposition results in a feeling: instantaneous, spontaneous, complex, multitonal, irreducible. (Location 1704)
  • We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs—or doesn’t—in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we “know” something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple. But the “knowing” at such moments, though happening without language, is real. I’d say this is what art is for: to remind us that this other sort of knowing is not only real, it’s superior to our usual (conceptual, reductive) way. (Location 1712)
  • It is saying that the highest aspiration of art is to move the audience and that if the audience is moved, technical deficiencies are immediately forgiven. (Location 1748)
  • Whitman was right: we are large, we do contain multitudes. There’s more than one “us” in there. When we “find our voice,” what’s really happening is that we’re choosing a voice from among the many voices we’re able to “do,” and we’re choosing it because we’ve found that, of all the voices we contain, it’s the one, so far, that has proven itself to be the most energetic. (Location 1782)
  • A switch got thrown in my head, and the next day I started writing a story in that new mode—allowing myself to be entertaining, setting aside my idea of what a “classic” story sounded like, and my usual assumption that only things that happened in the real world were allowed to happen in a story. In this new story, which was set in a futuristic theme park, I was using an awkward, slightly overdriven corporate voice that came naturally to me when I thought, “Go ahead, be funny.” I wrote it a few lines at a time, not sure where it was going (what its arc was, or its theme, or its “message”), just paying attention to the line-by-line energy and especially to the humor, keeping an eye on my imaginary reader, to see if she was still with me—if she, like my wife, was laughing from the other room and wanted more of the story rather than hoping it would mercifully end soon. In this mode, I found, I had stronger opinions than when I was trying to be Hemingway. If something wasn’t working, I knew what to do about it, immediately and instinctually, in the form of an impulse (“Oh, that might be cool”), whereas before I’d been rationally deciding, in stiff obeisance to what I thought a story should, or must, do. This was a much freer mode—like trying to be funny at a party. (Location 1805)
  • When I finished the story, I could see that it was the best thing I’d ever written. There was some essential “me-ness” in it—for better or worse, no one else could have written it. The things that were actually on my mind at that time, because they were in my life, were in the story: class issues, money shortages, work pressures, fear of failure, the oddball tonality of the American workplace, the failures of grace my state of overwork was causing me to commit every day. The story was oddly made, slightly embarrassing—it exposed my actual taste, which, it turned out, was kind of working-class and raunchy and attention-seeking. I held that story up against the stories I loved (Location 1816)
  • And—to belabor this already questionable metaphor—what will make that shit-hill grow is our commitment to it, the extent to which we say, “Well, yes, it is a shit-hill, but it’s my shit-hill, so let me assume that if I continue to work in this mode that is mine, this hill will eventually stop being made of shit, and will grow, and from it, I will eventually be able to see (and encompass in my work) the whole world.” (Location 1832)
  • We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he wanted to express, and then he just, you know, expressed it. That is, we buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and beautiful and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully. (Location 1864)
  • A guy (Stan) constructs a model railroad town in his basement. Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic railroad bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices that he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture—the hobo seems to be gazing back at the town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. (Oh, why can’t they be together? If only “Little Jack” would just go home. To his wife. To “Linda.”) What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so—in a split second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal “Yes.” He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them. In my view, all art begins in that instant of intuitive preference. (Location 1867)
  • I once heard the great Chicago writer Stuart Dybek say, “A story is always talking to you; you just have to learn to listen to it.” Revising like this is a way of listening to the story and of having faith in it: it wants to be its best self, and if you’re patient with it, in time, it will be. Essentially, the whole process is: intuition plus iteration. (Location 1910)
  • That’s how I see revision: a chance for the writer’s intuition to assert itself over and over. (Location 1922)
  • A piece written and revised in this way, like one of those seed crystals in biology class, starts out small and devoid of intention and begins to expand, organically, reacting to itself, fulfilling its own natural energy. (Location 1923)
  • Bob started out a cartoon on which I could heap some scorn, so that my reader and I could be united in looking down at Bob, but now he’s closer to “us, in a different life.” (Location 1946)
  • I find this happening all the time. I like the person I am in my stories better than I like the real me. That person is smarter, wittier, more patient, funnier—his view of the world is wiser. When I stop writing and come back to myself, I feel more limited, opinionated, and petty. But what a pleasure it was, to have been, on the page, briefly less of a dope than usual. (Location 1952)
  • A story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals. We keep reading because we continue to feel respected by the writer. We feel her, over there on the production end of the process, imagining that we are as intelligent and worldly and curious as she is. Because she’s paying attention to where we are (to where she’s put us), she knows when we are “expecting a change” or “feeling skeptical of this new development” or “getting tired of this episode.” (She also knows when she’s delighted us and that, in that state, we’re slightly more open to whatever she’ll do next.) (Location 1985)
  • The exciting part of all of this, to me, is that we always have a basis on which to proceed. The reader is out there, and she’s real. She’s interested in life and, by picking up our work, has given us the benefit of the doubt. All we have to do is engage her. To engage her, all we have to do is value her. (Location 1994)
  • (I sometimes joke with my students that if they find themselves trapped in exposition, writing pages and pages in which their action doesn’t rise, all they need to do is drop this sentence into their story: “Then something happened that changed everything forever.” The story has no choice but to respond.)* (Location 2298)
  • The boldness of this leap teaches us something important about the short story: it is not a documentary or rigorous accounting of the passage of time or a fair-minded attempt to show life as it is really lived; it’s a radically shaped, even somewhat cartoonish (when held up against the tedious real world) little machine that thrills us with the extremity of its decisiveness. (Location 2327)
  • So, that’s no problem, and it’s even beautiful, but where it gets complicated is in that moment when someone proposes that I judge Chicago, so we can do something about it. When someone asks, “Well, what should we do about Chicago?”—Lord help us. A solution will arise, and it will likely be dunderheaded, because of how pathetically I’ve just underimagined good old Chicago. This is also how we imagine, and then judge, people. (Location 2684)
  • If we set out to do a thing, and then we (merely) do it, everyone is bummed out. (That’s not a work of art, that’s a lecture, a data dump.) When we start reading a story, we do so with a built-in expectation that it will surprise us by how far it manages to travel from its humble beginnings; that it will outgrow its early understanding of itself. (Our friend says, “Watch this video of a river.” The minute the river starts to overflow its banks, we know why she wanted us to watch it.) (Location 2733)
  • So, why the index cards, on that date? In a word: underconfidence. We prepare those cards and bring them along and keep awkwardly consulting them when we should be looking deeply into our date’s eyes because we don’t believe that, devoid of a plan, we have enough to offer. Our whole artistic journey might be understood as the process of convincing ourselves that we do, in fact, have enough, figuring out what that is, then refining it. (Location 2737)
  • The writer spends her whole artistic life trying to figure out what gas stations she is uniquely capable of making. What does she have that will propel the reader around the track? What does she do in real life when seeking a conversational boost of speed? How does she entertain a person, assure him of her affection, show him that she’s listening? How does she seduce, persuade, console, distract? What ways has she found of being charming in the world, and what might the writing equivalent of these be? It would be nice if she could just go, “Oh, in real life, I do X,” and then do X in her work—but it’s trickier than that. (Location 2748)
  • So we might understand revision as a way of practicing relationship; seeing what, when we do it, improves the relationship between ourselves and the reader. What makes it more intense, direct, and honest? What drives it into the ditch? The exciting thing is that we’re not doomed to ask these questions abstractly; we get to ask them locally, by running our meter over the phrases, sentences, sections, etc., that make up our story, while assuming some continuity of reaction between the reader and ourselves. (Location 2774)

New highlights added July 22, 2022 at 10:30 PM

  • fact draws us in. This seems to be one of those “laws of fiction” we’ve been seeking. “The car was dented and red” makes a car appear in the mind. Even more so if the fact is an action: “The dented red car slowly left the parking lot.” Notice how little we doubt that statement, the spontaneous, involuntary buy-in that makes us forget that there is no car and no parking lot. But to say that the story is nearly all facts doesn’t mean that Tolstoy is a minimalist. He has a gift for making sentences that, staying within factuality, convey a bounty of information and make a rich, detailed, almost overfull world. (Location 3657)
  • Yet his writing is full of compassion. That’s what he’s known for. He emanates concern for the weak and powerless, sees all sides of every issue, inhabits character after character (low people, lofty people, horses, dogs, you name it), and the resulting fictional world feels nearly as detailed and various as the real one. A person can hardly read even a few lines of Tolstoy without feeling her interest in life renewed. (Location 3691)
  • I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work. (Location 3700)
  • So, five shifts of vantage point in three paragraphs: (1) the objective truth (via our omniscient narrator), (2) Vasili’s public stance (via his speech to Nikita), (3) Vasili’s private stance (via his thoughts), (4) Nikita’s public stance (via his speech to Vasili), and (5) Nikita’s private stance (via his thoughts). Processing this number of shifts normally requires some extra effort on the part of the reader—a sort of fee gets charged in readerly attention. But here we barely notice, charmed by Tolstoy’s “fundamental accuracy of perception.” When we go into a character’s mind, what we find there feels familiar and true. We’ve had versions of those same thoughts ourselves, and so we accept them, and the result is a view of the situation that feels holographic and godlike. (Location 3720)
  • In other words, what makes us think of Tolstoy as a moral-ethical giant here is a technique (going from mind to mind) coupled with a confidence. Of what is Tolstoy confident? That people are more similar to him than different. That he has an inner Vasili, an inner aged host, an inner Petrushka, an inner Nikita. This confidence serves as a gateway to (what reads as) saintly compassion. (Location 3740)
  • So, the big difference in these two versions is the increased causality in Tolstoy’s version. This “lesser writer’s” version reads like a sequence of unrelated events. Nothing causes anything else. Some things…occur. But we don’t know why. The result of the sequence (“they get lost”) feels out of relation with what came before. They just get lost randomly, for no reason, and this means nothing. (Location 3808)
  • 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. First, a willingness to revise. Second, the extent to which the writer has learned to make 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. (Location 3815)
  • Returning to the idea of a story as a process for the transfer of energy: 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. The preferred, most efficient, highest-order form of energy transfer (the premier way for a scene to advance the story in a non-trivial way) is for a beat to cause the next beat, especially if that next beat is felt as essential, i.e., as an escalation: a meaningful alteration in the terms of the story. (Location 3847)
  • Earlier, we defined escalation as that which results when we refuse to repeat beats. Each time we pass that clothesline, the laundry has undergone some small change in its condition. We read this as an escalation, or at least a mini-escalation—a “refusal to repeat.” (It would be a lesser story if all four descriptions were identical.) (Location 3877)
  • “Always be escalating,” then, can be understood as “Be alert, always, to the possibilities you have created for variation.” If an element recurs, the second appearance is an opportunity for variation and, potentially, escalation. (Location 3880)
  • The structural core of this section is a simple before-and-after pattern. Which offers us lesser writers a technique: if we want change to appear to happen in our stories, the first order of business is to note specifically how things are now. We write: “The table was dusty.” If, later, we write, “The newly dusted table gleamed,” this implies that someone who had previously neglected it has now dusted it: someone has changed. (Location 3973)
  • How does Tolstoy propose that such a transformation might happen? First, let’s note that after that silent half a minute, Vasili does not launch into a soliloquy or internal monologue describing his changed feelings about master/peasant relations or his radical new understanding of Christian virtue as it applies to the treatment of the less fortunate. He doesn’t announce (to us or Nikita or himself) that he has “realized” something. The order of operations is not: a change overcomes him, and then he realizes this, tells us about it, then acts. He just acts (or, actually, goes back into action). And he goes back into action just like himself, in the same way he always has, “with the same resolution with which he used to strike hands when making a good purchase.” He’s doing what he’s been doing all his life: boldly getting busy, to forestall anxiety. (Location 4059)
  • I think something like this is what happens to Vasili. He gets brought back to himself by acting like himself. As himself, he knows what to do. His natural energy, which for so long had been used to benefit only himself, gets redirected. A defect becomes a superpower. (A bull about to run through a china shop gets turned in the direction of a house slated for demolition.) And then, observing himself in action, seeing a charitable, selfless person, he is moved and feels “a peculiar joy,” a joy I associate with his relief at finally shucking off a way of being that has always impeded him. He recognizes this new version of himself, feels that “strange and solemn tenderness,” and starts to cry. And that is “transformation.” (Location 4089)
  • Tolstoy is proposing something radical: moral transformation, when it happens, happens not through the total remaking of the sinner or the replacement of his habitual energy with some pure new energy but by a redirection of his (same old) energy. What a relief this model of transformation is. What else do we have but what we were born with and have always, thus far, been served (and imprisoned) by? Say you’re a world-class worrier. If that worry energy gets directed at extreme personal hygiene, you’re “neurotic.” If it gets directed at climate change, you’re an “intense visionary activist.” We don’t have to become an entirely new person to do better; our view just has to be readjusted, our natural energy turned in the right direction. We don’t have to swear off our powers or repent of who we are or what we like to do or are good at doing. Those are our horses; we just have to hitch them to the right, uh, sled. (Location 4116)
  • I’d say there’s a general thesis in here somewhere: any story that suffers from what seems like a moral failing (that seems sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, pedantic, appropriative, derivative of another writer’s work, and so on) will be seen, with sufficient analytical snooping, to be suffering from a technical failing, and if that failing is addressed, it will (always) become a better story. Here, an accusation we’ve been dancing around (“Tolstoy seems to be exhibiting class bias”)* gets converted (by asking, “Where, exactly?”) into a neutral, more workable, technical observation: “In (at least) two places—when Nikita comes home from the hospital and in their respective death scenes—Nikita is denied the interiority that Tolstoy gave Vasili in similar moments.” (Location 4177)
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