I recently discovered George Saunders via the New Yorker Fiction podcast (some of his stories on there are really, really funny) and recently a friend recommended Saunders’ book on writing fiction, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.
It’s fantastic, one of the better books on writing I’ve read. Even if you’re not a fiction writer or a writer at all, I think it’s worth it, because reading stuff like this (at least imho) makes you a better reader.
Notes and quotes…
Fiction can help us learn to be more compassionate:
So we might say that the text has become more “alert to Bob.” But that didn’t happen because I was trying to be a good guy. It happened because I was discontented with the sentence “Bob was an asshole” and tried to make it better.
But the person who wrote, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife, Marie, who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas, which had always been her favorite time of year” feels like a better guy, somehow, than the one who wrote, “Bob was an asshole.”
I find this happening all the time. I like the person I am in my stories better than I like the real me. That person is smarter, wittier, more patient, funnier—his view of the world is wiser.
When I stop writing and come back to myself, I feel more limited, opinionated, and petty.
But what a pleasure it was, to have been, on the page, briefly less of a dope than usual.
How details and diversions work in drama:
We’re being swept downriver by the strong current of the overall organizing principle, while being caught along the way in a series of small, distracting local eddies. Our moment-to-moment attention is constantly being drawn to surviving the local eddies, and so we don’t notice ourselves racing toward the fatal waterfall at river’s end.
Causality in fiction:
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.
For most of us, the problem is not in making things happen (“A dog barked,” “The house exploded,” “Darren kicked the tire of his car” are all easy enough to type) but in making one thing seem to cause the next.
This is important, because causation is what creates the appearance of meaning.
“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.”
The fractal structure of stories:
A structural unit (in this case, all of the text describing what happens during this stop in Grishkino), like a story, wants to look something like Freytag’s triangle. (This is more aspiration than rule.) A structural unit should, that is, be shaped like a miniature version of a story: rising action, building to a climax. (If a structural unit in a story we’re writing isn’t shaped like that, we might wonder if it wants to be; if it is shaped like that, we might want to make that shape sharper.)
A character who doesn’t fully change may “redirect” their energy (toward a different end).
Tolstoy is proposing something radical: moral transformation, when it happens, happens not through the total remaking of the sinner or the replacement of his habitual energy with some pure new energy but by a redirection of his (same old) energy.
On meaning and the absurd:
Sometimes life feels a certain way that we call “absurd”: nothing matters, all efforts are for naught, everything seems random and perverse, positive intention is perpetually thwarted. This stance communicates darkness and edginess, which can feel like wisdom. But we don’t live as if life is absurd; we live as if it has meaning and makes sense. We live (or try to) by kindness, loyalty, friendship, aspiration to improvement, believing the best of other people. We assume causality and continuity of logic. And we find, through living, that our actions do matter, very much. We can be a good parent or a bad parent, we can drive safely or like a maniac. Our minds can feel clean and positive and clear or polluted and negative. To have an ambition and pursue it feels healthy. A life without earnest striving is a nightmare. (When desire vanishes from a normal life, that is called depression.) We live by the assumption that some modes of existence are preferable to others and that we are capable of determining what those better ways are and moving toward them.
And yet, as incorrect as it seems to say that life is entirely absurd, it seems equally incorrect to say that life is entirely rational. Well-made plans are confounded. We do everything right and get punished. Someone we love dies early; our mind goes bad; we are unfairly misunderstood; the world suddenly seems to have turned against us. We set a glass on a shelf and it falls right off. Our dog stops to poop on the nicest-looking lawn on the block, and from out of the house steps our boss. Power is held by shitheads; virtuous people suffer unfairly. Happy, fortunate people, to whom everything has been given, preach positivity to sad, unlucky people, who were given nothing. We push the button labeled “I Need Help” and one of those boxing gloves comes out and hits us in the face as the machine lets out a comic farting noise.
So, life is mostly rational, with occasional bursts of absurdity.
On ambivalence and moral certainty:
Question: “Is X good or bad?”
Story: “For whom? On what day, under what conditions? Might there be some unintended consequences associated with X? Some good hidden in the bad that is X? Some bad hidden in the good that is X? Tell me more.”
Every human position has a problem with it. Believed in too much, it slides into error. It’s not that no position is correct; it’s that no position is correct for long. We’re perpetually slipping out of absolute virtue and failing to notice, blinded by our desire to settle in—to finally stop fretting about things and relax forever and just be correct; to find an agenda and stick with it.
What I admire most about Chekhov is how free of agenda he seems on the page—interested in everything but not wedded to any fixed system of belief, willing to go wherever the data takes him. He was a doctor, and his approach to fiction feels lovingly diagnostic. Walking into the examination room, finding Life sitting there, he seems to say, “Wonderful, let’s see what’s going on!” It’s not that he didn’t have strong opinions (his letters are proof that he did). But in his best stories (and here I’d include, in addition to the three in this book, “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” “In the Ravine,” “Enemies,” “About Love,” and “The Bishop”) he seems to be using the form to move beyond opinions, to destabilize the usual ways we go about formulating them.
If he has a program, it’s being wary of having a program.
A beautiful story can help us feel more “open to the world”:
Essentially, before I read a story, I’m in a state of knowing, of being fairly sure. My life has led me to a certain place and I’m contentedly resting there. Then, here comes the story, and I am slightly undone, in a good way. Not so sure anymore, of my views, and reminded that my view-maker is always a little bit off: it’s limited, it’s too easily satisfied, with too little data.
And that’s an enviable state to be in, if only for a few minutes.
When somebody cuts you off in traffic, don’t you always know which political party they belong to (that is, the opposite of yours)? But, of course, you don’t. It remains to be seen. Everything remains to be seen. Fiction helps us remember that everything remains to be seen. It’s a sacrament dedicated to this end. We can’t always feel as open to the world as we feel at the end of a beautiful story, but feeling that way even briefly reminds us that such a state exists and creates the aspiration in us to strive to be in that state more often.
Would we have felt as fond of the real-life versions of Marya, Yashka, Olenka, Vasili, et al. as we now feel of their literary representations? Might we have dismissed them, failed to notice them at all?
They started out as notions in the minds of another person, became words, then became notions in our minds, and now they’ll always be with us, part of our moral armament, as we approach the beautiful, difficult, precious days ahead.