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.