Pulse 3, continued.
The whole pulse to me felt like an escalation of the previous pulse, which brought up the idea that people like the QM, even though trying to be decent one-to-one, resign all their decency under the influence of the Cossacks, when, for example, they give away the narrator's affiliation with the academic circles, which we had already found (twice) to be dangerous for the narrator. In a similar vein, even though the narrator tries to remain calm under pressure, he is unable to recompose himself, even though no violence has been done to him (aside from stepping on the feet). In this pulse, I see the narrator's attempt at reading as a final show of protest, a final coping mechanism to prove to himself that he can choose not submit to the environment. And the main takeaway for me from this pulse, and of the whole story in fact, is that it is truly impossible to stay connected to oneself when placed in extreme conditions, and as much as we might not want it, we are overcome by animal instincts that lead us to survival, even at the expense of others.
I did the first exercise about three times. The first time, I radically pruned away the lad's throwing the trunk over the gate and, hence, the narrator's putting the trunk back together and, also, i eliminated the narrator's noticing cooking going on and his homesickness. So, I guess, in that instance, it all started with a Cossack farting, and, within that, there is also the elder Cossack's chiming in with narration, which, I guess, for the narrator, would be one of the seemingly innocent but unnerving acts, the moment where the narrator can see that authority won't support him, here. That, I guess, is beside the point, it does become a different story - no hunger equals no goose and then what's the narrator to do - kill the near-blind old woman?
The second time: I put the trunk incidents in but I kept anything to do with the sense of smell out - so, no flatulence and no cooking smells - but a homesick narrator: Again, why is he going to kill
a goose in this scenario? What's he going to do? Kill a Cossack or try to punch one only to be killed by them? It doesn't really make much of a story, because the very final pulse, (re: the TICHN concept), wouldn't come into existence, it just becomes another anecdote of another Intellectual who bites the dust whilst travelling with this particular division.
The third time: I again eliminated the trunk incidents, but I kept the cooking incident, making him homesick. Only, by then, I could see how every sub-pulse was necessary. For me, it seems that with Babel's intensely compressed work, this method of first, creating sub-pulses (beats) and then moving them around or, in my case, eliminating them, enables one to see the whole scene, to be there, to see it from different angles. Babel does elaborate, he doesn't have the luxury to do so. So, for instance, by taking out the trunk incidents, I could see how important the trunk is, my brain keep on repeating the Humpty-Dumpty nursery rhyme. I see that as a moment where a lot comes apart for the narrator, it's unnerving. We can't see what was in the eyes of that young flaxen haired Cossack, but we can see what the act does to the narrator. Also, the farting incident carries with it the narrating of the elder Cossack, which has me in mind the importance of who carries authority in a group of deeply autonomous Cossacks. That elder Cossack, by narrating humorously on the young lad's fart, displays that he doesn't care too much about this visitor.
The narrator's retreating and trying to find comfort in reading reminds me of the historical futility of retreating from a Cossack's harassment, it only ever made them more determined and savage.
On a completely unrelated note... I'm one of those jerks I guess who don't like hard cover books, and I waited THIS long for A Swim in a Pond in the Rain to come out in paperback (longer than the average wait, I might add.) I preordered forever ago and just got my shipping notification! Still waiting but at least it soon will be mine.
I agree with comments below that the listing of simple actions in a story or section of a story is very effective. I can see why you have given so much attention to pulse 3. It is possible for a series of simple actions to with a huge inflection point. For #8 I looked up the wikipedia entries for Cossacks and Lenin. I had no idea "Cossacks" would yield such a confusing, complicated historical scenario. I am still brooding over pulse 3 and wondering whether the discussion over pulse 4 will help redeem the narrator for me. I have of course read the entire story and know that he feels remorse but that doesn't feel good enough as the meaning of this story. I think Babel must want us to look further. Perhaps it was something to do with Lenin and how theoretical treatises become meaningless in the battlefield.
This post had such great crafty meat in it. I love index cards anyway, and now I have a new use for them. I love anything that lessens the anxiety, oof. Thank you, George.
There’s no devil in Genesis, only a serpent.
I attempted the second exercise. Take a story I've written and reduce it to a series of simple actions. I say "reduce" because I tried to strip away everything around each single action and not direct a reader what to feel.
A five-year-old girl hears her mother crying.
The mother is taken to an institution.
The little girl is frightened.
She is told to be a “trooper” and not cry.
She tries to be a trooper.
A chunk of the girl’s hair falls out.
The doctor asks her if she’s been worried.
The little girl won’t answer.
I'm not sure If I've stayed true to George's ask. I think I've cheated with the third sentence because I am describing what the girl is feeling (frightened) rather than describing the action. In the original version, the little girl's lower lip starts to jiggle. But I chose to say she was frightened here because it felt like a clearer / simpler chain of cause and effect. Also interesting for me was the last sentence - "The little girl won't answer." A minute earlier, I had written this sentence as "The little girl doesn't answer." But "won't answer" felt more deliberate. The little girl makes a conscious decision not to answer. All in all, I loved this exercise, the feeling of trying to be strict, trying to fine-tune so that, as George says, "the meaning of the story will naturally arise from the juxtaposition of these simple actions."
This was such a useful and interesting exercise – thank you, George!
It really helped me see the proximity of cause and effect between each sub-pulse; there doesn't appear to be any "gaps" (i.e., cause and effect separated by one or more unrelated events), and in general there is a clear and efficient link in each instance between one cause and one effect.
One of the sub-pulses I experimented with the most was the narrator's reaction to the cooking. Babel's placement of this highlighted for me the way he evokes the narrator's character. I wondered initially why this sub-pulse couldn't appear earlier in the story, for example while the narrator was retrieving his trunk and before he retreated to the corner of the yard; or, alternatively, much later, for example after the Lad repeatedly hassles him while he's trying to read. What I concluded was that those alternative placements wouldn't highlight as effectively the narrator's character: he is a journalist, an intellectual, and loves reading – it stimulates him and also, in the circumstances, offers solace. So it makes sense that once he feels hungry and lonely, he turns to reading (i.e., he does not immediately turn to reading after settling into the corner of the yard), and it is the disruption to his reading that finally causes him to take action (i.e., not hunger and loneliness alone, which is a motivator that's not unique to him).
In this way I think this pulse (3) has a sort of "three-beat" escalation: the trunk/farting, cooking/loneliness, and the legs/reading.
Has anyone applied George's technique to one of their own stories? Would love to know how it's going, especially for a very stuck story.
I have started noticing decisions in tv programmes, films, books, what are the micro decisions made that influence how narrative continues/escalate.
There is a great podcast on bbc sounds called The Godfather and me. It discusses the film and some of the decisions made. Really interesting- and it’s not a film I necessary love, but I will go back to it to spot all these pulses for action or shots. How the story is translated from a book to the screen and still transmits key points, it is fascinating. I loved hearing how small, sometimes technical decisions convey so much.
This is frivolous, but ... I loved reading it in exactly reverse order. Somehow I can't stop laughing. Every time. Imagining why each piece leads to the next is a delight. I might just be overtired.
Narrator can’t concentrate on his reading.
The Cossacks come over, step on his legs, make fun of him.
Narrator lies down to read.
Narrator recalls home, feels hungry and lonely.
Narrator notices some cooking going on.
Narrator retreats to a corner of the yard.
Narrator puts his trunk back together.
Lad farts at narrator, walks off when done.
Lad throws trunk over gate.
I love this class.
Oooh, yay, I can’t wait for pulse 4, that’s when the story really gets good, imo. I love that it feels like a surprise when the narrator pushes the old lady, but then as soon as he does it, it also feels inevitable. Inevitable surprises are so satisfying. And this one reveals something about the narrator yet still keeps an inexplicable edge that’s so captivating.
Before I start Exercise 1, I feel like George missed this subpulse:
• Older Cossack laughs/provides commentary of Lad farting.
To me, the older Cossack’s laughter/approving commentary emboldened the Lad to seek out the narrator further and make fun of him “relentlessly.”
Also, I changed “Narrator lies down to read” to “Narrator tries to get comfortable enough to read.” I think that little detail of the Narrator making a pillow of his trunk is really sweet. Because he recalls home and then tries to make a little home. Which then fails because the Cossacks step on his legs and the Lad makes fun of him.
So, the reorder. First, which of the subpulses require some sort of mandatory placement?
1. The Narrator lying down to read has to come before him not being able to concentrate on his reading (he has to try before he fails). He also has to lie down before the Cossacks can step on his legs. Which is super interesting actually, because before this exercise I hadn’t realized that the narrator has to feel a certain amount of security to lie down to begin with. He doesn’t have his fists up the whole time, for example. That fart really did a ton of heavy lifting establishing the atmosphere of the story.
2. Lad has to fart before the Older Cossack can provide the fart commentary.
3. Lad has to throw the trunk before the Narrator can put it back together.
As is, the causation is so airtight that I can’t change it to make the Narrator’s actions make any more sense than they already do. So since I can’t improve upon the story that’s already there, I decided to reorder it to see if I could make Lad the main character, or at least a co-main character:
Lad farts. But no older Cossack commentary. Lad just farts. Lad does not walk off.
Narrator retreats to corner. Makes the little trunk into a pillow, starts reading.
Lad comes over, steps on Narrator’s legs, makes fun of him relentlessly. In my version, Lad is the only Cossack who comes over.
Narrator stands up.
Lad bends over, throws the trunk.
Narrator leaves it, doesn’t bend over to pick up his things. Narrator stays standing.
Lad makes fun of him again, relentlessy.
They have a standoff.
This was the best I could do without making up any subpulses.
Such a good escalation exercise, like our first 200/50 one.
As for Exercise Two, I’d been writing a conversation between two friends and it was just so slow and meandering and one of them was hardly speaking and George’s last two posts inspired me to make the mute one burst into tears over a seemingly innocuous comment and now the whole exchange feels so much more alive than before. Thanks a ton.
P.S. My favorite connective/relational term is Accordingly. There’s nothing better than starting a sentence with a well-earned Accordingly.
Walk a big set of stairs and you have a story from all of those actions and escalations^^
I keep thinking how a smart and talented Babel, who is also well informed as a journalist (he had been in Ukraine in Holodomor period) goes back to the Ussr from Paris only to be arrested and executed. Was he hoping to kill enough geese to appease the tyran?
And something else: George hasn't talked about this (I don't think). I'm wondering about the idea of writing for an ideal reader--a specific person you are imagining you're communicating with. I can see how maybe this is a non-fiction writing thing and maybe doesn't apply elsewhere, but I'm curious. Because where I find I get off-track and lost in the weeds is when I get into over-explaining or "teaching" instead of offering ideas and leaving the gap for my reader to consider something and then play with it and choose for herself. Do others of you write with a specific reader in mind? THANKS!
What effects are you noticing in your own work as a result of Story Club anybody? I write non-fiction and am in the middle of a course creation project now and what I've noticed is more clarity in my editing (YAY!). I'm more clear about looking for and finding simpler more direct ways to say what I mean (and mean what I say). And even with the index card sort and the sequencing of ideas—I'm seeing how useful this is for my teaching, blog posts, and book project. As for the "tics" in my writing--the habits of phrases and sentence structure. Maybe just to read more ecumenically and dare myself to color outside the lines I made so long ago? What about anybody else? What are you noticing?