Resource review: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
A craft book review by Eric Maika
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
George Saunders, 2021
The first book I ever read on the topic of how to write told me, hey, it’s pretty simple, all you have to do is clock four to six hours of writing per day, just write, put in the time, and you can become a writer.
That’s it. Now I’d love to be the person who just sits down and writes for four to six hours per day. I really would. I have no excuses. I have free time. I have grand ideas for stories of science fiction, horror, fantasy, and non-fiction topics. When I have mornings free, I usually sit down with a coffee and some yogurt in front of my tablet PC and brainstorm ideas in an outline, or write out some stream of consciousness to get a story started by developing a character or scene. On those rare occasions when I’ve completed an outline that I’m happy with, I next write out the story, praying the plot holes will smooth over and, in doing so, brilliantly accommodate my overarching themes, intertwined storylines, and characters with complete, sensible arcs.
This doesn’t really happen, but I just push ahead anyways, doing what I can to spot-weld a story together, I tell myself, so maybe at some later point my brain will come up with solutions for all those gaping holes. It’s at this point where I typically conclude that the story is complete (but not publishable) and shelve it.
Mostly though, I spend a lot of that dedicated writing time ironing out minor story details, or distracting myself with something else, or just fretting about the fact that I can’t come up with progressive and logical story points and plot twists. Which is why I think just sitting around writing for four to six hours a day gives me an anxious feeling like I’m just wasting that time anyway, which might be better spent farting about various aspects of maintaining my life like making grocery lists and doing my taxes.
What makes me feel like I’m not wasting my time? Reading books about writing. As inferior as it may be to actually writing, I never regret reading these books, although I do often regret paying for them and wondering how I’m going to get rid of them since I won’t read most of them again. But you know what? There are a few gems I’ve found over the years, books that are different from one another, but have done a great job teaching me specific techniques and frameworks from which I can build much stronger stories.
One of these books is the newly released (2021) title from George Saunders, former geophysics engineer who turned himself into a creative writer and eventually a professor of the same. His book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is named after what I can only assume is one of his favorite lines in Anton Chekhov’s Gooseberries. This is one of seven short stories by classical Russian authors which Saunders analyzes, starting with a dissection of another Chekhov work, Into the Cart, one page at a time for the entire eleven-page story.
To digress just a moment, let me tell you, I’ve never been a friend of classical literature. English was my most dreaded subject in high school, and I’ve only been delving into the classics in the past few years since I started trying to write creatively. Most of my life I didn’t “get” most fiction, thinking it mostly a waste of time, a way to dissociate and live in someone else’s skin in a far-removed world from our own. The perspective and appreciation I have these days regarding fiction comes from other excellent books I’ve read about writing—in seeing storytelling as an expression of proto-psychology, a cathartic puzzle for the reader to put together, so they might learn something about life or themselves, whether that be directly through the protagonist or as some greater theme snuck into your brain that you solve at an unconscious level. If that is what fiction really is about, and I’m thinking that it is, then I’m all for more of that.
So my experience with these classic Russian short stories went like this: oh, there are some interesting bits here and some brilliant description there, but after reading each of them I was left underwhelmed and unsatisfied. Why did Saunders get me to read that? In other words, I missed the point. Every single time. Then Saunders swoops in and makes a bunch of presumptions about what I thought about it and says “well, did you think about it this way?”
No, in fact, I didn’t. But thank you, because I now have this tool to help me understand these narratives from a new perspective, and I can try to use those same considerations when crafting my own stories. The fact that I am thinking about these stories after I’ve finished reading them is great, because each one is different. Seven stories, seven major new tricks. I can’t promise you don’t already possess these literary tools, but they are all useful and informative. And no other book about writing touches on them at all. And that’s really the makings of a good book on the craft of writing—going where no other writer does with new detail and insight.
I felt like I was sitting in on some of Saunders’ lectures at Syracuse University. Each chapter comes across as an intellectually stimulating lecture. He isn’t afraid of giving up his secret sauce, and that’s to all of our benefit, although I did pay $40 for this book, so I guess Saunders does get something out of it. But I feel this book holds its full value. It is 410 pages, including appendices and applicable writing exercises. To boot, it also got me more interested in Russian history of that period, late 1800s and early 1900s, on the cusp of industrialization.
Probably the most rewarding part of understanding these stories better, or at least sitting and spending more time with them than I would if I had just read them on my own, is that I started to see myself in those characters, no small feat by the writers considering how far removed our lives seem today from 1800s Russia. And for those stories I didn’t see myself in, I did see people I know. On this note, Saunders puts his own emphasis and philosophy to work in regards to what a story is and is supposed to do. By emotionally moving the reader, we compel them to want more—the difficult and elusive goal for any writer—just to get the reader to keep turning the damn page.
Saunders looks at the big picture, addresses the big questions of the stories, then goes down to a granular level. Because the stories are not very long, he dissects seemingly simple sentences, soaking every little drop of meaning and positing convincing arguments about what the author may have meant.
I have some mixed feelings on this. In a postmodern world where one sandwich represents one possible interpretation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, there isn’t a picnic basket large enough to accommodate all the possible sandwiches, and there is no doubt in my mind that not all of those interpretations are what the director intended. Similarly, I suspect, though with no proof in hand, these famous writers did not intentionally put every ounce of meaning into every story that every literature class has teased out of them.
But we are now in an age of self-reflection, hyper-reflection even. We see patterns where there are none, conspiracies from overactive imaginations, and meaning where there may have been no intention. But I don’t think this is a bad thing. We are just continuing down our path of evolving self-discovery, finding new ways of seeing and thinking, which I hope someday will lead to new and beautiful places for our creativity to fill and reside.
So where does that leave me now? This book certainly hasn’t helped me sit down and write for six solid hours every day, but you know what, no other book has either. But I am better off for having read it, and I feel like, when I am able to write, I will have some new devices to work with. I’ve grown a bit, expanded my mind some, and hopefully that will take my writing in new and interesting directions.