No, I didn’t travel to Syracuse, New York, to study with the Booker Prize-winning author of Lincoln at the Bardo. And no, I didn’t take a shivering swim in the always-cold waters of Onondaga Lake. What I did was read George Saunders latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain in Which Four Russians Teach a Master Class in Writing, Reading and Life. And it revived my writing life.
Since October 2020, I’ve been fighting a hospital-acquired staph infection in my spine. It left me physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. I returned to old favorites by Ernest Hemingway and new favorites by Lauren Groff for inspiration. Maybe they would jump-start my writing. They didn’t, and I began to wonder, “Why do I even bother?”
Saunders’ book was a gift from a writing friend and teacher who sensed my need for an infusion of something other than IV antibiotics. Like the antibiotics, it worked. Using short stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Turgenev—pieces he assigns to his Syracuse University MFA students that I had never read and will never read, again, outside of this book—Saunders leads readers through an assessment of each story. What works and why? What doesn’t work by today’s standards? What if parts were left out? How would those deletions change the story?
Two early essays (The Heart of the Story and Afterthought #2) hit particularly close to home: finding our voice and the story in the revision process. “We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he wanted to express, and then he just, you know, expressed it. That is, we buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing the same,” Saunders writes. “The actual process in my experience, is much more mysterious and beautiful and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.” How refreshingly honest, I thought.
It’s in our revisions where much of the mystery, beauty and even messiness of writing reside. For Saunders, revising isn’t an intellectual process; it’s an intuitive one. Guiding him is an imaginary meter mounted on his forehead. (Stay with me and him on this.) P is for positive; it’s on one side. On the other is N for negative. He reads his first draft aloud, like a first-time reader, “without hope and without despair.” Fixes emerge. He makes them. Prints out another draft. Reads it aloud. Makes more changes, often three or four times in a day.
“So a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle (on your forehead), adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (lather, rise and repeat), through sometimes hundreds of drafts, over months or even years. Over time, like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.” (To put things in perspective, the idea for Lincoln at the Bardo occurred to Saunders twenty years before he began work on that experimental (and first) novel in 2012. It was published in 2017 and subsequently won the Booker Prize.)
Revision, Saunders says, “is a chance for the writer’s intuition to assert itself over and over.” How liberating is that? It means:
- We don’t apologize for our first drafts. Saunders’ revision method “overturns the tyranny of the first draft. Who cares if the draft is good? It doesn’t need to be good, it just needs to be, so you can revise it. You don’t need an idea to start a story. You just need a sentence.” Sounds familiar. Isn’t that what Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast? “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
- With each revision, we listen to each sentence. Saunders is a proponent of reading every revision aloud. “Reacting to that sentence, then changing it, hoping to divest it of some of its ordinariness or sloth is…writing. That’s all writing is or needs to be.”
- We get comfortable with our distinctive style. Good advice from this former engineer who, by his own admission, only found success after he quit writing Hemingwayesque realism and allowed himself to be, well, himself. He wrote more intuitively, humorously, impulsively, and his work got published.
- We give up assumptions about what a story should be. “The story has a will of its own, one it is trying to make me feel, and if I just trust in that, all will be well, and the story will surpass my initial vision of it.” Saunders uses an archery metaphor to make his point. Don’t aim at the target. Rather, “concentrate on the feeling of the arrow leaving the bow…[it] then sails off in a certain direction and keeps adjusting course, and wherever it lands…that’s the target.”
- We surprise ourselves. To be a work of art, our writing “has to surprise its audience, which it can do only if it has legitimately surprised its creator.” We know how this feels when our characters so inhabit us that they, not we, tell the story.
I’m writing again, but differently, thanks to antibiotics, skilled physicians, and George Saunders. No more discomfort about sharing a first draft with trusted classmates; it’s just a beginning after all. No more self-imposed deadlines to finish a story. It will happen when it happens. There’s no perfect work. Even Russia’s greatest writers produced flawed stories, if you look hard enough. As I listen (and read) now, always looking for the ordinary and the sloth, I ask, “Where’s the thrill in that for me and the reader?”
George Saunders, through his experience, wisdom, knowledge, skill, and self-deprecating humor has taught me to revel in the process of writing as much as in the finished work and to laugh along the way. Jimmy Buffet calls these “changes in latitude, changes in attitude.” Having arrived here, I intend to stay.