I love it when Babel writes in his journals “Describe the transport cars in front of the broken bridge at noon.” Will he ever do so? Maybe not. That sentence already tells a story. I’ve read that his journals are full of this same sort of instruction to himself: “Describe _____.” It’s a wonderful shorthand, a way of remembering things, perhaps visually. Not slowing himself down in the moment to add more to what’s already in his head. Or using it as simply a word—his way of getting things down. Taking the pressure off. Moving on and moving through.

Although then he writes this: “An indescribable store: Dickens, brooms and golden slippers.” Later, in the fictionalized version, he describes what he has said is indescribable. I find that….humorous?

Your example of a quick entry/departure (Nordstroms, stolen bag) is a great lesson in understanding when context is or is not necessary. Do we need anything more than the short version? No. As you say, it’s not a rule—sometimes the longer version becomes necessary depending on the voice, the style, tone, etc. But, in story terms, we do not need more context. We get it. To add further exposition, detail, explanation—we risk creating a boring paragraph. Better to get in and get out. (That’s what she said.) (Sometimes.)

I love this sentence: “When I was just out of college, I worked in the oil fields in Indonesia.” My sentence: “When I was just out of college, I worked at The Frankfurter on University Way.” Not as exciting as yours, George, but oh do I have stories (I was fired).

Happy Easter, George, and anyone else who celebrates!

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“But I hadn’t really read enough to write interesting stories in those days.” Well, that surprised me a bit. I’ll be thinking about what that means over the coming week.

It actually emboldens me to try a story soon. I remember something Didion wrote about writing. She starts with nothing more than an image, not an idea. She never knew, she said, where the image would take her. I notice moments every day now that could possibly serve as a springboard for such a story. For instance, this past week, I was driving behind an expensive-looking white car in a well-to-do neighborhood in Sacramento. We came to a traffic light. As I waited for the light to change, a woman’s arm with a light blue plastic thing in her hand stretched out the window. The grace of the arm movement and the vivid blue of the object in the sun next to the white car drew my eye and that of a friend in my passenger’s seat. There was a pause before the woman in the car ahead poured liquid out of the plastic thing on to the road. As it rotated in her hand I saw it was a woman’s camping gadget for peeing in the woods. My friend and I looked at each other in astonishment. I said, “Now that is a short story.” My friend, who knows nothing about the Story Club, looked at me as though what I said was even weirder than the little action we both just witnessed.

I loved what you had to say about “Gedali,” one of the stories I liked best in Red Cavalry.

Happy holidays, everyone who reads this!

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Your point about the brutal factuality of the goose killing echoes for me the quick scene of the shooting in The Stone Boy. It's over almost before you realized it's happened, and you believe completely in its horror.

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At the risk that others will find this really, really boring:

The couple napped through a lazy Sunday afternoon on the couch, watching baseball.

The baseball game flickered across the television, but the man and the woman weren't watching.

They spent the afternoon watching baseball with their eyes closed.

We spent the afternoon watching baseball with our eyes closed.

We spent the afternoon with our eyes closed, watching baseball.

We closed our eyes and spent the afternoon that way, watching baseball.

Sunday afternoon slipped by one inning at a time while they dozed on the loveseat.

The Giants were winning, but they didn't care. She had her head on his arm, and he was snoring softly.

She had her head on his arm, and he was snoring softly. The Giants were winning, but she didn't care.

The Giants are winning, but you don't care. All that matters is your head is on his shoulder. He snores softly.

The Giants are winning, but you don't care. You have nothing against the Giants. You prefer their telecast to the Mariners. All that matters is your head is on his shoulder, and his chest rising and falling beside yours.

The overcast sky gave them an excuse to curl up on the couch watching baseball.

When she started to feel guilty about spending the afternoon watching a baseball game neither of them actually cared about, she looked outside and felt like the overcast sky was giving them a kind of permission. She wasn't sure what she would do if the sun came out.

Apparently it was very cold in Cleveland--the announcers kept mentioning this, and occasionally the camera panned spectators huddled under blankets--and this made her feel even more content, snuggled under a blanket next to her husband on the couch.

She decided that spending the afternoon watching baseball while half-asleep on the couch with her husband would be her way of resisting the endless pressure to be productive, even in recreation.

Sunday afternoon: baseball, a nap on the couch.

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I'm reminded of two things: Dreamstorming, Robert Olen Butler's technique for "outlining" a novel in *From Where You Dream*. And the way a brilliant drawing teacher I had encouraged us to avoid "Mr. Potato Head drawings" (contour lines showing the nose, the lips, each hair on the head, etc.) and aim instead for capturing the light and the dark.

Babel's quick notes of scenes strike me as very similar to the list of ten bits of sensory imagery Olen Butler suggests to create an index-card note for each scene in the novel. Enough to bring to mind the feeling and images of the scene but no more; refrain at first from juicing the orange.

What was fascinating to me in the drawing class was how much more information you received from a portrait drawing done in the light/dark method: You could tell what the mood and emotions of the person were, their age, even how they belonged or didn't in their surroundings. Details about their life like gender and ethnic background were clearer. Potato Heads are weirdly specific and generic at the same time. You know exactly where the person's philtrum starts and ends, but you know nothing about the person.

As always, thank you for Story Club! I'm looking forward to some "quick pose" sentence exercises.

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Here's Lydia Davis in the Paris Review showing how she worked a sentence for a story (i have cut and pasted here from the Review):

Final version:

She walks around the house balancing on the balls of her feet, sometimes whistling and singing, sometimes talking to herself, sometimes stopping dead in a fencing position.

Here’s how it evolved from first sentences and phrases to last:

She is likely to walk around the house lightly on the balls of her feet...(bad rhyme here: likely/lightly)

She walks...

around the house slowly...(doesn’t suggest happiness)

around the house slowly but delicately...(too much explanation)

around the house slowly, carefully...(not strong enough)

around the house slowly, carefully, balancing on the balls of her feet...(too wordy)

around the house slowly balancing on the balls of her feet...(good, I like it. then later I think, Too much, and take out slowly. now the first part of the sentence is finished)

sometimes whistling, sometimes singing, sometimes talking to herself, sometimes...(no. too many sometimes)

sometimes whistling and singing...(no. can’t do both at once)

sometimes whistling or singing...(no. sounds too deliberate)

sometimes whistling and singing...(okay after all, can be one after the other)

sometimes stopping dead and assuming a fencing position...(no. too many -ings in there. but I know I have to end with “fencing position”—it’s the culminating, striking image. it’s what made me write the sentence down in the first place. it’s also a strong phrase, and the word position is a strong word)

sometimes stopping dead in a fencing position...(cutting solved the -ing problem)

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I'm playing catch-up -- a crazy work week. Story Club, an oasis. The latest lesson from George, a real water pool:

"trying to come up with an English sentence that somehow conveyed the essence of the experience of seeing the thing - not merely “accurate",” but somehow alive in its syntax in a way that conveyed a sort of dynamism."

God, I felt such a ZING reading this. I'm pretty sure that this, more than storytelling, made me want to write. I'm still astonished that something so abstract as language can be charged to convey experience. The art of it doesn't come easily to me --- I'm not facile. Every time I'm dredging words from a swamp and baking them in sun.

Here's my timer exercise. Thank god I wasn't watching clothes tumble in a dryer when it went off. AND that desk of George's does NOT qualify as untidy.

On this cold, gray, April morning, only one child plays in the small park outside my window where bony branches of plane trees show no promise of spring.

On this cold, April morning, only one child plays in the small park outside my window where the branches of plane trees show no sign of spring.

The trees are still bare next to the park outside my window where one child plays.

This morning, only one child plays in the park outside my window where the trees show no promise of spring.

This morning, one child plays in the park outside my window where plane trees are still bare.

Only one child in the park outside my window and branches of trees, bare.

Even in April, only one child in the park and branches of the trees, bare.

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On Kanopy the other night, I came across a 2015 documentary called "Finding Babel." Of course I had to watch it. It features Babel's own grandson following the trail of his grandfather's life and works. Yes, a heartbreaker, and unfortunately all too timely given what's happening now, but very sensitively told, and great to see proof of Babel's living legacy both in his grandson and the larger culture.

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Happy Easter! This note on action (vs belaboring) was such excellent advice, thank you! When it comes to revision, especially novels, do you have any advice for how to handle the endless read through/edits that are required? Somehow I’ve found short story collection editing…well..more manageable (due to the tonal shifts and newness that comes with each story). Novels are like making it through the Sahara by foot and then taking a lift back to begin again, and again, and again…and so on. Would love to get a sense of how to handle the novel (how many times you find you read through a novel in its entirety before submitting, and how to handle the tedium of hundreds and hundreds of pages and keep the editorial vision fresh).

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'Dickens, where was your shadow that evening? '

'Where are we going, Walt Whitman? ... Which way does your beard point tonight?'

(Allen Ginsberg, A Supermarket in California)

Shades of great writers in copiously-stocked emporia.

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This is my own bit of Babelesque. It’s not fiction. But of course it is ‘written’. And - although this incident has resounded in my head for decades and has been edited in that space. it’s a first draft. So feel free to comment. .....

But please be kind. Because this is more or less the way, and verging on the voice, and about the things that I would wish to write of.

#. So. Once upon a time in the Moscow 90s, I hailed a chastnik - an ordinary car  (any old car) whose driver might stop and give you a lift for a fee negotiated on the spot. I had many illuminating experiences doing this on my own during the years of maximum chaos.

The thing  I learnt was that you should always, ALWAYS sit in the passenger seat next to the random driver and make conversation. That way, with charm and humour, you could quickly become свои - one of ‘ours’ - which was the best way to be safe. And you had a better idea of what the driver might be up to.

So, I hail this car one evening

to go from somewhere in central Moscow to somewhere else in central Moscow. It’s some kind of rather shabby, brightly-coloured иномарка (foreign make). I get in beside the driver. He turns out to be this extraordinarily beautiful young blonde boy, not more than 20, with crazily-startling blue eyes. 

Then he he takes off at great pace. Down darkening alleyways and bocketing across  the amorphous spaces behind apartment blocks. A rather scary sign. I say, in a neutral tone: ‘which way are we going?’ And he says: ‘well, the traffic is terrible, I’m taking you po dvoram (through the yards)’

The traffic WAS terrible. And he seemed to know his route. Still,  I decided, I’d better start making conversation quick. So:  ‘What’s that?’, pointing to this plastic object on his dashboard. It was the size of a cantaloupe, jewel coloured and bound with a gold crown that looked rather like the headgear of the Russian Patriarch. ‘Is it a religious symbol?’

‘No! It’s an air freshener!’  A bit of a silence……

’But actually, now I THINK about it, perhaps it IS a religious symbol. Because I’ve crashed this car three times, and that thing has always survived….’

We’ve  emerged onto a road I recognise in the right general area.  A relief, indeed. Still, particularly after THAT business, I’d probably better keep up this chat, if I want to survive. So: ‘Who are you going to vote for in the elections next week, Yeltsin?’. 


Now we are really getting somewhere, conversationally, I think. And thank the Lord! 

‘Isnt it MARVellous! Lovely young people like you! Your generation, they haven’t managed to ruin you with their communism!! You’re free to vote for democracy!’ 

Right then, he draws up into the amorphous, bockety space behind my own apartment block, stops right by my front door. I give him the money. We say all the proper friendly, polite things. I get out of the car and turn to close the door. And he looks straight at me with those eyes and says: 

But they HAVE managed to ruin me. They sent me to fight in Chechnya…..

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Some goes at the exercise:

The orange horse was standing with his nose almost touching the trunk of a tree.

The horse's orange nose was almost touching the tree trunk.

The horse was standing very still and his nose was nearly touching the tree trunk.

There was one tree in the field and the horse stood near it, his nose almost touching the trunk.

The still horse and the silent tree stood so close to each other they were almost touching.

The horse and the tree stood silently together.

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Timer Exercise -

Started here:

The cat purrs on my chest blinking at my eyes heavy with exhaustion and my hands burn and smell like bleach.

Cat on my lap, sweats on my legs, the smell of bleach on my hands - none of these things erase the grotesque mess of last night.

The feverish child leans against me, the small tabby purrs, and all three of us try to ignore the smell of bleach around us.

The small tabby purrs loudly, seemingly oblivious to the unhappy smell of bleach in the air.

Ended here:

There is a small, purring cat on my lap and the unhappy smell of bleach on my hands.

(My 8-year-old daughter came down with a tummy bug and threw up 5 times overnight last night… we are very tired today.)

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What an egg-cellent likeness of you, George!

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Here is what I came up with in the exercise. I’m not really satisfied with any of the sentences, but it was fun to do. I think #4 might be the closest to what I felt.

1. (This first sentence was the true observation; I was looking across at the family room where we had family over for brunch on Sunday. The scene made me laugh, because while I had cleaned up all the food and napkins and dirty dishes, the furniture was still exactly as it had been). I’m looking at a sofa and chairs arranged around the coffee table, all slightly askew as if people have just gotten up from them, or invisible people are still sitting there.

2. The coffee table was at the center, the couch and chairs around it slightly askew as if invisible people were still coming and going from the cluster.

3. The room was empty of people but the chairs around the coffee table gave the impression of an invisible, friendly conversation still going on.

4. The room has a friendly vibe, as if people just left a few seconds ago and will be right back.

5. Empty chairs around the coffee table are slightly askew, cushions and a blanket comfortably displaced, as if invisible people are sitting in conversation.

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I love dashing off notes like this. Lately, it's been in my phone particularly after waking up from a dream or in that hazy drop-off time when an idea passes through. It's always a puzzle in the morning to read the autocorrected note written without benefit of glasses.

I have returned to journals somewhat. I abandoned my personal journal after someone read from them and was exposed to my unfiltered insecurities. It's taken years to trust something that just anybody could pick up. But when I am making notes, they seem to fall into that same clipped style described in Babel's journals. It's a sound, a thought, an image, a line of dialogue. It's rarely a sentence. I wish sometimes I had gone back to them sooner because whatever context I assumed would be present to decode them is long gone.

One trick I have to jump-start my writing sessions is to just start journaling on the page. I have a section set aside for it. I may re-read the previous session's work and then move to the journal section to begin free-associating. I tell the journal about how tired or unmotivated I am to write. Or I ask questions that are nagging me about the piece I'm working on. At a certain point I feel the compulsion to just move back to the piece and continue. For almost all work aside from poetry, I can't even write without my fingers being on a keyboard. I'm a touch typist and to me it feels that by journaling, my fingers tell my brain that we're in writing mode and after a bit, it responds, "Yes, that feels like we're writing. By the way, I have this thought..."

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