WWhile George Saunders was writing his latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he noticed something strange. The book examines seven Russian short stories, which Saunders taught for twenty years in a creative writing course at Syracuse University, New York. Many writers teach, and many have a difficult relationship with teaching, but Saunders long ago “decided not to let it be.” He divided his weeks into three days of teaching, four days of writing, a clear division of roles. But when he started the Russian book, his two lives merged.
He took his “teaching attitude” as he wrote, and was amazed at “how much fun” he had. “There’s a different sensitivity when I walk into a classroom,” he says. The look is the same – “sloppy balding hippie” – but “I’m a slightly nicer and less selfish person”. With this slightly nicer, less selfish person at the keyboard, interesting things started happening, and his fiction-writing self “got a real boost.”
Last month, Saunders launched the “natural extension” of his teaching and that book: Story Club, a subscription newsletter to share pile. In its biweekly newsletter, Saunders promises to look at what makes stories work — and “what” [we can] learn about the mind by watching it read and process a story”. He will also look at what makes stories not work, including sharing his own early drafts of stories beaten back by the New Yorker. A week after the launch, thousands had already signed up.
But why does Saunders want to do it? What wisdom, if any, does he wish to impart? He won MacArthur and Guggenheim grants in 2006 for his first short story collections, and the awards and accolades have been rolling in ever since. There was the Folio Prize for December 10 in 2014 and in 2017 a Booker for Lincoln in the Bardo, his first – and so far only – novel. Set in the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln’s son was buried, it is populated by a group of restless ghosts. But even before he wrote it, Saunders was a literary celebrity. David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, Miranda July and Ben Stiller recorded the audiobook. All of this means, “Right now,” says Saunders, on the phone from his home in Corralitos, California, “I’m like a gray Eminence.”
He could lock himself up to write the “great novel of the War and Peace type that spans 10 or 15 years and goes into the minds of many people” that he talked about recently. But instead, Eminence Saunders has learned to weigh up the extra power it gives his teachings. “If my bit of disapproval or indifference or praise has an inappropriate effect, fine.” He’s 63 and his age seems to be fidgeting at the edge of his sight. In a podcast with Substack, he said he joined the platform because he “hate” the idea of losing the wisdom students have taught him over the years. (Typical of his magnanimity, he sets himself up as the collector of the wisdom of others rather than the purveyor of his own.) “I thought, ‘So when I’m done with this life, it’s gone…’ Confronting that idea made him feel “a little angry,” so he came up with Story Club.
In his brilliant introduction he describes how he sees the club working: “The writer is a person who runs through a winter forest, on skates. The creative writing program (or Story Club) is a frozen pond that suddenly appears: you of course still use your own natural energy (because what else could you use?), still going in ‘your’ direction – only now, you go faster.
So, as in that metaphor, the writer doesn’t have to worry, or obsess, or line up her ducks, or plan: she just has to skate, which means she has to be energetic in relation to the challenges which the teacher puts before her; willing to tackle them in a spirit of, ‘Well, who cares — it might help.’”
His first newsletter contains a picture of his lonely writing shed in the woods behind the house in Corralitos. His wife, Paula, bought it for him a few years ago, and it’s a writer’s dream. No fences or distant roofs. Just the barn surrounded by trees and the shadows of trees. Writers’ rooms are usually withdrawn. But Saunders uses his to host a community of writers. Why does he care? “I suppose one of the things that someone worries about along the way is, ‘Does this really matter?'”
He got an answer to this question as soon as letters started coming in from readers of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Saunders has always had a healthy mail bag. “But those letters about the Russian book… People said they were having a hard time and the book spoke to them. It was nothing philosophical. It was just the feeling of another human voice speaking to them.” Saunders is a great writer, and part of the greatness is that reading him feels very much like being addressed in a friendly manner.
This may be why some people wrote to add their observations to his readings of the stories. Others wrote to disagree. A woman pleaded for a close study of the horse in Tolstoy’s Master and Man. “And she’s absolutely right,” he says. If someone writes “‘I hated your novel’, that’s not so nice”. But when they respond to a story, “that’s a class discussion,” right there in the shed. Saunders’ teaching wisdom is: “Make energy. You feel the temperature rise, then it is as if everyone in the room has matured.”
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain advocates the best form of close reading. There are diagrams and grids, nuts and bolts. Saunders studied engineering at university and he likes “that close, almost technical way” of approaching text. “I find it really comforting to think it’s a process,” he says. But the approach also offers other kinds of comfort.
“Going up into that shed every day was so helpful.” It was, he says, a way of saying, “I don’t control the world.” We do so much projective worrying. There are all these feeds coming into our house, in our heads, telling us all the terrible things that are happening… And we welcome it in…” But if a person chooses to “watch a cool story instead” , you focus on something and see how your own mind reacts to it. I think that’s good in the sense that meditation is good.
“For me the pandemic is – I see it a bit like dying and being a ghost. Because you can see the world. It’s still there. And you can remember being in it and loving it and not having to worry about wearing a mask… You can remember that, but you can’t do it. So it does, in the same way a ghost does, take a little break. Such as: ‘Ha! Wow! This world is crazy. It’s fantastic. I wish I was in it again!’ And of course the hope is that we will get back into it.”
Besides taking you out of fear of the pandemic, such a close reading is key to writing your own work, he says. When Saunders switched to teaching in his shed, he says, “I suddenly saw ideas everywhere.” Usually he is “a person with one or two stories a year”. But after completing A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he wrote four in 18 months and sent the manuscript for his next collection. The effect of reading so close was “like listening to a lot of great albums and trying to tear them apart, and all of a sudden you’re musical”.
“This is so corny,” he says, but one night, shortly after completing A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, “he actually had a dream from the first four or five lines” of a story. He got out of bed, went to the kitchen, and sat down to write. “I don’t normally do this. But by three o’clock in the morning I had come all the way to the end.’ Then he spent a year overhauling.
Saunders says Substack isn’t taking him away from the great novel, “because I don’t know what it is.” He just knows there’s a craving for something like that, and he wonders if he could “write about ordinary people in America”. As he puts it, “I came to the table as a published writer with the first few books being very funny and sci-fi and dystopian. So now I feel like I’m going on a journey to find out how much that matches up with my real feelings about life I think I want to make sure that what I do is not trivial in any way In other words that it would speak to people in the future that it would be a pretty, very correct, recognized would be a book, the light and darkness in human existence. When I think of War and Peace, I’ve really put a spin on it… So I just want to put a really good spin on it.”
Moreover, he says: “I don’t like to relax. My policy is: [to] overload myself. I work better with less sleep and I work better with more work.”
For more information or to subscribe to get George’s work delivered to your inbox, visit Story Club at georgesaunders.substack.com
Seven ways to improve your creative writing
“Intuition, those momentary flashes of judgment that we have when we’re editing, that’s really where the gold is,” Saunders says. In Story Club, he describes his mental compass, which has a needle that points to P (positive) or N (negative), depending on how he feels when he rereads his own words. He checks the needle with every sentence. If it points to N, it revises. He revises until the needle points to P for the entire text.
2 Number the concepts
Saunders calls this ‘psychological self-gaming’. Every time there is a big change, he renumbers the concept. “I can go back and say, ‘Oh, I’m at 98.'” Will he be in the thousands? “It depends on how you count them.”
Revision doesn’t make sense unless I print,” he says. “There is a visual difference in reading on the page versus on the computer. I don’t trust it until I read a paper version.”
4 Know When You’re Checking Too Much
Those new to writing should overwrite only “to familiarize themselves with their particular world. We need to learn our individual symptoms of over-revision.” For me,” says Saunders, “the symptom is that the humor is going out. “
5 Any time can be a good time
“Productivity and time at the desk aren’t necessarily linearly related,” Saunders says. “When I had that technical job, I never wrote more than 40 minutes at a time. And then I’d sit down and do that little mental thing, ‘I hereby allow you to write at your desk. Go ahead. Cut the bullshit. Cut to the chase.'”
6 Face the issues in your story
“If you try to deny the problem and write the problem in spite of the problem in a story you write, it won’t be very good. But if you say to yourself in the story, “You have a problem, don’t you?” then the result will be better because it is fair.”
7 Don’t Think About The Big Themes Of Your Book
“If an idea comes to mind that isn’t stupid, that interests me, I say, ‘Okay, I’ll do that.’ But that’s when your mind starts to say, “And the reason I do that is because it’s a critique of patriarchy.” I cut that off. ‘No no. We don’t know why we’re doing it. We’re just doing it because we like it, and it’ll tell us what it’s about.’”