Writing lessons from the Russians via George Saunders

What you can learn from A Swim In A Pond In The Rain

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During my most recent flight to Houston I started reading George Saunders’ new book, A Swim In A Pond In The Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. Saunders, the beloved and award-winning author of several short story collections and the novel Lincoln In the Bardo, teaches a seminar on the Russian short story every year at Syracuse University. This book is sort of a summation of that class for those of us who won’t have the opportunity to attend a selective MFA program; but more than that, it’s a beautiful exercise in learning how to read as a way of learning how to write.

I don’t read much short fiction. I don’t think my brain is wired for it. More often than not, I come away from a short story thinking “Where’s the rest of it?” Accordingly I wasn’t expecting to take much away from this except for a few dictums about writing that may or may not apply to my job. Imagine my surprise that this Saunders fellow actually knows what he’s talking about: instead of a dry lecture summary, A Swim In A Pond in the Rain is an exuberant look at the things that make fiction work.

The book begins with an interesting exercise: he engages with Anton Checkhov’s short story “In the Cart” a page at a time, giving a page of the story and then a page - or several pages - of commentary. The story itself is only eleven pages long, but the page-at-a-time exercise stretches to sixty pages, including afterthoughts. By engaging with the story this way, he endeavors to work out the “million-dollar question: what makes a reader keep reading?” in a very back-to-basics manner.

In addition to not reading much short fiction, I also haven’t engaged with the Russian greats that much. (By which I mean that I’ve read half of War & Peace, and I’ve got most of the lyrics from Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 memorized.) I always considered the Russian short stories I was assigned in literature classes over the years to be a little impenetrable, a lot dry, but the way Saunders engages with them as vehicles for emotion made me want to seek out more of them to read.

Since this is nominally a servicey newsletter, I’d like to provide some quotes from the book that illustrate some of his “rules":

This is an important storytelling move we might call “ritual banality avoidance.” If we deny ourselves the crappo version of our story, a better version will (we aspirationally assume) present itself. To refuse the crappo thing is to strike a defacto blow for quality. (If nothing else, at least we haven’t done that.)”

Just so in a story: we should always be pushing the new bead to the knot. If you know where a story is going, don’t hoard it. Make the story go there, now. But then what? What will you do next? You’ve surrendered your big reveal. Exactly. Often, in our doubt that we have a real story to tell, we hold something back, fearing that we don’t have anything else. And this can be a form of trickery. Surrendering that thing is a leap of faith that forces the story to attention…” 

To our accruing list of universal laws of fiction (Be specific! Honor efficiency!), which, by the way, we should continually remind ourselves to distrust, we might add: 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.

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.

A linked pair of writing dictums: “Don’t make things happen for no reason” and “having made something happen, make it matter.”

This last dictum - “having made something happen, make it matter” is, I’d say, the crux of any theory he might have on what makes a story work. He talks at length in the book about “causality,” the idea that one event in a story causes another, as the way our brains make the decision on whether or not a story is working, if it’s moving us.

“The queen died, and then the king died” (E.M. Forster’s famous formulation) describes two unrelated events occurring in sequence. It doesn’t mean anything. “The queen died, and the king died of grief” puts those events into relation; we understand that one caused the other. The sequence, now infused with causality, means “That king really loved his queen.”

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. 

 A well-written bit of prose is like a beautifully hand-painted kite, lying there on the grass. It’s nice. We admire it. Causality is the wind that then comes along and lifts it up. The kite is then a beautiful thing made even more beautiful by the fact that it’s doing what it was made to do.

Often when I’m editing and I find a scene that seems out of place or gratuitous, my mind will put a little mental bookmark on it; a sort of note to self that this scene, being different, must Mean Something for the narrative. It’s very frustrating if that scene doesn’t have payoff later! Later he says that “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.”

When I talk about “building tension” in an edit, causality and escalation is what I’m referring to - for the events to build steam, one to the other, until the end. Though the book is necessarily focused on the short story, I think the lessons he imparts here are good for novelists, as well.

Apart from rules and analysis, Saunders also had a few thoughts on being true to your own voice that made me sit up and take notes. Here he is on figuring out what kind of writer you are, with the metaphor of your own work being a shit-hill:

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.” 

Over and over in the book Saunders urges us away from easy, “crappo” choices, from banalities and generalities. Don’t try to imitate someone else’s mountain in place of building your own hill. I hope you all find your own shit-hill and make it grow.

HOUSEKEEPING

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THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY

Somehow, unaccountably, we’re starting to talk playoffs. The trade deadline has come and gone, and my beloved Caps have picked up a few new randos that are apparently doing very well for us. Patrick Marleau of the Sharks played his 1,768th game which means he has played more games than any other player in NHL history, including “Mr. Hockey” himself, Gordie Howe. (He of the eponymous hat trick.) A bunch of cowards cancelled the Women’s World Cup, despite letting every men’s hockey tournament from Juniors up to the Stanley Cup final go ahead. Right now the Caps are 3rd in the East, under the Penguins (ugh) and the Islanders (boo.)

But none of that matters, because tonight I’m going to the Juice Box to see the Astros play the Angels, and I could not be more excited.

LINKS!

Art Doesn’t Need Tyrants by Tavi Gevinson (Vulture)
This brings me back to “But he was nice to me.” This refrain just underscores the efficacy of respecting people’s humanity only so long as their loyalty is advantageous. It also underscores the scarcity and fear that Hollywood and theater function on. Many of us contractors do not have job security and learn that it would not be in our “best interests” to challenge those who could employ us. We’re taught that we’re expendable and that there is always someone willing to do our job, and for free. 

this the country: black figuration, nicolas de stael, and some vibes by Brandon Taylor (Sweater Weather)
I think sometimes, these matters get abstracted in the news in an attempt to appeal to reason and logos. There are much data presented. Many facts. There are charts, diagrams. Percentages. But when you look at the situation, it boils down to: the police shot and killed a sixteen-year-old girl who had called them for assistance because she was being attacked. It’s too awful to contemplate. That she was so young is particularly heinous. That we feel foolish for expecting justice and consequences is also particularly heinous. But it is also important to remember that the police should not be shooting anyone to death. The police also should probably not exist. A human being who was here just three days ago is no longer here because she was murderedby the state. I mean, I am not naïve, but I feel the older I get, the more it baffles my mind that a not small part of our country has accepted this as part of some kind of social contract. That occasionally, a person going about the ordinary course of their life will just be killed by the state. Like. What?

What Shakespeare Actually Wrote About The Plague by Stephen Greenblatt (The New Yorker)
Plague constantly appears throughout Shakespeare’s works in the form of everyday exclamations: “a plague upon it when thieves cannot be true to one another”; “a plague of sighing and grief! It blows a man up like a bladder”; “a plague upon this howling”; “a plague of these pickle-herring!” But this is a sign less of existential horror than of deep familiarity, the acceptance of plague as an inescapable feature of ordinary life.

LINKS, REDUX

The forgotten history of the purging of Chinese from America. How to Write Faster and Find Your Voice. Go inside Tokyo’s massive underground storm drain. How “sexy times with wangxian nearly broke the Archive of our Own. FIYAH mag announces the IGNYTE award nominees.

READING: Hermione Lee’s TOM STOPPARD: A LIFE  LISTENING: The Kossoy Sisters: “In the Pines” WATCHING: Death in Paradise WEARING: old navy workout leggings.