“What a story is ‘about’ is to be found in the curiosity it creates in us, which is a form of caring.”
By Maria Popova
We move through a storied world as living stories. 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.
Great storytelling plays with this elemental human tendency without preying on it. Paradoxically, great storytelling makes us better able not to mistake our compositions for reality, better able to inhabit the silent uncertain spaces between the low notes of knowledge and the shrill tones of opinion, better able to feel, which is always infinitely more difficult and infinitely more rewarding than to know.
That is what 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. Questions like how to live and how to make meaning inside the solitary confinement of our mortality. Questions like:
How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seems to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?
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.
Considering this consonance between storytelling and life, these parallels between how we move through the fictional world of a story and how we move through the real world, Saunders writes:
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:
A story is a linear-temporal phenomenon. It proceeds, and charms us (or doesn’t), a line at a time.
We might think of a story as a system for the transfer of energy. Energy, hopefully, gets made in the early pages and the trick, in the later pages, is to use that energy.
The true beauty of a story is not in its apparent conclusion but in the alteration in the mind of the reader that has occurred along the way.
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:
A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to 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. And that part of the mind is the one that reading and writing refine into sharpness.
A story is able to reach that honest part of the mind and move it only by dignifying the reading mind as such. A generation before Saunders, E.B. 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 observes:
A story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals. We keep reading because we continue to feel respected by the writer.
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:
Always be escalating. That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation. A swath of prose earns its place in the story to the extent that it contributes to our sense that the story is (still) escalating.
What is escalation, anyway? How does a story produce the illusion of escalation? … 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. All causality provides an answer, pacifying and stimulating, to the most primal question of every child, the child still living in each of us: But 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
This is important, because causation is what creates the appearance of meaning.
Causality is to the writer what melody is to the songwriter: a superpower that the audience feels as the crux of the matter; the thing the audience actually shows up for; the hardest thing to do; that which distinguishes the competent practitioner from the extraordinary one.
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.