What makes a work of art beautiful?
Our lengthy analysis of “My First Goose” should suggest to us that a good short story is, among other things, a highly organized system. Its parts feel in connection with one another. There’s very little waste or randomness. Many decisions have been made along the way, by different means, some conscious, some not. It feels fraught with intention, full if direction. It doesn’t necessarily know what it is, but it won’t settle for being, well…less coherent (organized) than it could be.
Now, this is different from saying it was all planned out. On the contrary – a good story also feels spontaneous, wild, unscripted. It seems to be arising in front of the writer as she works. We feel the writer surprising herself, being educated and guided by her own work of art. And yet, when we look closely (and slowly, as we’ve been doing) we can’t help but notice some mysterious quality that feels a lot like intelligence coursing through it.
Revising, then, might be thought of as a system for getting more organization into the little system that is our story.
Now, it’s a little nebulous, this notion of “more organization.” We know a high-organization system when we see one. We feel it. But it’s difficult to precisely articulate the qualities of a high-organization system. (Saying “inject more organization” is not so different, really, from saying, “Make it better.” Which is good advice, but not very useful.)
In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, I offered a few examples of more organized systems vs. less organized ones.
The first involved the great Charlie Chaplin. He made two fight sequences, sixteen years apart. The earlier one, filmed in 1915 (when he was 27) was The Champion. The later one appeared as a sequence in his masterpiece, City Lights, filmed in 1931, when he was 43.
The exercise is just to watch those sequences, in that order. When I checked just now, both were available on YouTube:
The Champion (the fight scene starts at about 22:00 minutes):
And here’s the boxing scene from City Lights:
It’s useful just to experience these in sequence and let the differences settle into you. I’d say we don’t even really need to articulate the differences: just feel them; let the (according to me) less highly organized fight scene resonate against the more highly organized one, then lightly ask yourself: What does it seem that Chaplin “learned” over the sixteen intervening years? What are the qualities of the more highly organized system? Where, in the less organized one, did your attention flag, and why? And (the big question): how do we imagine Chaplin went about achieving that more highly organized version? How was his mind working? By what was he steering? What were his work habits, his ingrained tendencies? What had those sixteen years taught him to honor, and what to avoid?
Chaplin was, it seems, an artist who believed in intuition – in improvising over and over until something magical happened.
“Ideas are stale things, so stale,” he said, in his famous 1966 interview with Richard Meryman. “The intellect is not too great a thing.” And: “I’m not too interested in why people laugh – only that they do. A lot of my comic business was ad-libbed. If I feel, have emotions, then one is ebullient, effervescent with ideas. I think creation comes initially out of mood….You say, “Oh God, I want to do something.”
So, presumably, both fight scenes were at least somewhat improvised. Why is one so much sharper and evocative than the other? What are the qualities of the one that makes us feel it as more organized (more shaped, more intelligent, more charged with witty intention)?
Take a look, see what you think, and I’ll have another example for us to work with next time.
P.S. Here’s the full text of Chaplin’s interview with Richard Meryman:
There’s a wonderful distillation of the interview, called “Chaplin’s Anatomy of Comedy” that comes with the Criterion Collection’s DVD of City Lights.