Posted in book reviews, Uncategorized

5 Things I Learned from “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” by George Saunders

In George Saunders’s latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, we don’t see the zany satire he’s known for. Instead we see a different side of Saunders, his teacher side.

The book is based on a course he teaches at the University of Syracuse about the Russian short story. He explores seven stories by nineteenth-century masters and looks for lessons that these stories still have for writers today. Here are five that I found valuable:

1. Wow Your Reader Once Sentence at a Time

Bill Buford, a former fiction editor of the New Yorker, once said that what he liked about a story was “I read a line. And I like it…enough to read the next.”

What keeps a reader reading? Tender vulnerability, a surprising turn of phrase, a description that changes the way we view an ordinary object, a bit of dialogue that makes us feel tethered to the characters.

Here was a line that wowed me from the first story in the book, “In the Cart” by Anton Chekhov: “‘And you can’t understand,’ she thought, ‘why God gives good looks, friendliness, charming, melancholy eyes to weak, unhappy, useless people––why are they so attractive.'”

Even though all the words in the sentence are simple, it expresses something complex about this character’s inner life and the life of the character she’s thinking about.

2. A Story Can’t Stay Static

One of the fundamental laws of fiction is “always be escalating.”

Early in his writing career Saunders once got a rejection that read, “It’s fast and funny and wild…but we aren’t sure it’s a story.”

Writing a satisfying story is a balancing act. We writers must set the reader’s expectations and honor them, but do it in a way that’s surprising. An ending that seems to come out of nowhere might cause the reader to throw the book out of the nearest window, but nobody likes a predictable plot either.

One way that several of these Russian writers manage this balance is by employing patterns and variations.

Chekhov’s short story “The Darling” tells of a woman named Olenka and the four men she’s loved in her life. With each new love, she becomes totally consumed by the object of her love, taking his opinions and views as her own. But each time the pattern repeats, something about the situation has changed. Each man is different, and Olenka is aging herself. By the end of the story, we feel like we know her so well because we’ve seen how the same personality trait manifests in different circumstances.

3. Revising is Listening

I often have my students read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” in the first class of a term. It’s a great way to free students from the pressure they feel to write perfectly from the start.

George Saunders says that in his years as a writing teacher, only two things separate his students who go on to publish from those who don’t. The first is structure, which I talked about in the previous section. The other is a willingness to revise.

We read our work the same way a reader might, line by line. And with each line, we have to ask ourselves, is this line working as well as it should? What can we do to improve it?

It can be a slow process.

Robert Frost once came to a college to do a reading. At that reading, a student stood up to ask a complex technical question about the sonnet form. Frost responded: “Young man, don’t worry: WORK!”

A lot of aspiring writers believe that there is a secret they can unlock to make writing fast and easy. If you have the secret, please let me know! So far in my writing career, the only thing I’ve found that works is parking my butt in the chair and telling myself I have to work.

A story is a conversation between a writer and a reader. As we go through our sentences line by line, we find opportunities where we can communicate better. This might be by speaking more directly, honestly or vividly.

The Russian short stories in this book did not manifest themselves exactly as how they were published. The writers crafted these stories by looking at what was already working well and enhancing it.

One small detail that got my attention in the Tolstoy story “Master and Man” was a shirt drying on a line that the main characters pass several times as they get lost in a deadly snow storm. Each time the shirt is being affected differently by the raging wind, until at last it has blown away entirely. I doubt Tolstoy sat down to write “Master and Man” with this drying shirt in mind, but when he realized how effective this detail could be at foreshadowing, he ran with it.

4. The Door To the Truth Might Be Through Strangeness

This is my favorite chapter title in the book, and not just because I teach a class called Writing the Strange.

What we call “realism” in fiction isn’t all that real. Events are heightened and condensed. There is no randomness. Everything is ordered and is understandable, for the reader if not for the characters. But how often does real life feel ordered and understandable?

This is why strange stories like “The Nose” by Gogol can still capture something about what it means to be human. This story is about a proud Russian bureaucrat who discovers that his nose has escaped from his face and surpassed him by obtaining the rank of State Councillor. With such an absurd premise, the story is able to satirize social class in a unique way.

5. Good Stories Resist A Single Meaning

When I was younger, I wanted to save the world with my writing. I thought that I could use fiction to correct people’s wrong opinions about social issues.

But Chekhov once said, “Art doesn’t have to solve problems. It only has to formulate them correctly.”

In other words, to express a problem fully, with all its nuances, not denying a part of it because it is inconvenient or contradictory.

In the story “Alyosha the Pot,” Tolstoy intended the main character to embody radical Christian humility. The story is about a simple peasant named Alyosha, who goes to the city to become a servant for a harsh but wealthy family. When he falls in love with the cook of the household, he realizes for the first time that life might have other things to offer. But both the masters and his family disapprove of the match, and he cancels the engagement. As the story continues, the reader can’t help but question if Alyosha’s meekness is truly a virtue.

Even though Tolstoy had strong moral beliefs about Christian ethics, in his fiction, he left a lot up the reader to decide. The world and the general public’s ideas about right and wrong have changed a lot in the hundred years since the story was written. If this story were more pedantic, if it told us there was only one ethical way to life, it wouldn’t have stood the test of time.


Let me leave you with one final quote from George Saunders: [when reading a good story] “we begin living it; the words disappear and we find ourselves thinking not about word choice but about the decisions the characters are making and decisions we have made, or might have to make someday, in our actual lives. That’s the kind of story I want to write, the kind that stops being writing and starts being life.”

I think that is what every writer is striving for. If, like me, you are struggling to figure it out, follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter for more posts like this where we learn something together.

Posted in book reviews, Uncategorized

My Favorite Books By Writers of Color in 2020

Like a lot of us , I ended up with some unexpected reading time on my hands this year. Every year I make an effort to read authors from a wide range of backgrounds and historical time periods, but this year, when racial justice is on the minds of so many people, it seemed especially pertinent to read authors whose experiences differ from mine. Here are a few of the books that I know I will keep thinking about for years to come.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

I was first exposed to James Baldwin in a college intro to literature course. His short story “Sonny’s Blues” made me cry my eyes out. Since then, I’ve read many of his short stories and essays. This was the first year I’ve read his novels.

If Beale Street Could Talk is about a young couple named Tisha and Fonny who are separated when Fonny is arrested of a rape he didn’t commit. It is easy to see why James Baldwin is one of the most famous black writers in American letters. He excels are portraying the tender love between the two main characters. Tisha’s struggle to free Fonny from prison makes this an important book about racial justice.

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim

So often in America, whether we are for or against a war, we focus on how it is affecting our country and our soldiers. We forget about the people who already live there. This collection of short stories represents an Iraqi perspective on the American invasion of Iraq and subsequent unrest. But these stories go beyond just representing an unheard perspective. They are dark, subversive and deeply mythic, all of which is so hard to find in Western literature today.

My favorite story, “An Army Newspaper,” was about an editor who passes off short stories from a dead soldier as his own. After he obtains wealth and critical acclaim, he receives more stories in the mail, all undoubtedly written by the same author and all equally beautiful. The editor is terrified his fraud will be discovered. He hides these new stories. But they keep coming, and coming. His house overflows with them. He has to rent a warehouse to hold them all. And they keep coming.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

Despite the title, this is not a how-to book, but rather a series of personal essays by Asian American novelist Alexander Chee. My favorite essay in this collection was “The Curse,” which is about Chee’s experience as a foreign exchange student in Mexico. While staying with a wealthy family, Chee becomes fluent in Spanish and begins to wonder if he could be more at home in this new land than in America, where he was always treated as an outsider. Near the end of the summer, the son in his home-stay family encourages him to pass himself off as a native Mexican, noting that his racially-ambiguous looks will make it easy. In the process, Chee learns something about himself.

Weep, Not Child by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a Nigerian writer who documented the end of colonialism and the birth of the new nation. Weep Not, Child, his first novel, is written in bold, broad strokes. Though it takes place during a chaotic period of violence and political upheaval, the story focuses on two star-crossed lovers who are trying to reaffirm their humanity in the face of inhuman forces.

Several years ago, I did some research on this period of Nigerian history. If it wasn’t for that, I’m not sure that I would have been able to follow the political drama that occupies the background of this novel. This is a beautiful story though, but you might want to brush up on the Mau Mau on Wikipedia before you read it.

The Woman In the Dunes by Kōbō Abe

In this post-war Japanese novel, a school teacher and hobby entomologist visits a small seaside village on a bug hunting excursion. When he first walks through the town, he thinks little about the houses deep inside wells of sand. But when he misses his bus and has to stay with a mysterious woman, he learns there is more going on in this quaint little town than first meets the eye.

This book terrified me from beginning to end. The distant voice of the narrator made me feel alienated but also encouraged me to think about the existential themes of the book in a larger context. The word “kafkaesque” gets thrown around a lot in literary blurbs, but this is one of the few cases where it is truly deserved.

Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land by Toni Jensen

This is a memoir about gun violence by Toni Jensen, a woman with Indigenous and European heritage. Though the book has some faults, it is at its best when Jensen shares her personal experiences of domestic abuse and racism. While in graduate school, she had classmates who ignorantly believed that all Native American writers were the same. My favorite essay in the book was “Ghost Logic,” where she tells the story of her first love. As a high school student, she sought shelter from her abusive father by staying with her boyfriend’s family in the house they shared with a jealous ghost. Her boyfriend was a sweet young man, but as their relationship developed she learned that he had serious mental health problems that threatened his life.

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