While 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 has taught on the creative writing course at Syracuse University, New York, for 20 years. Many writers teach, and many have a difficult relationship with teaching, but Saunders long ago “decided to not let it be like that”. He sliced his weeks into three days of teaching, four of writing, a clear division of roles. But when he started the Russian book, however, his two lives merged.
He adopted his “teaching stance” while he wrote, and was amazed by “how much fun” he had. “There’s a different sensibility when I walk into a classroom,” he says. The outward appearance is the same – “sloppy balding hippy” – but “I’m a slightly nicer and less egotistical person”. With this slightly nicer, less egotistical person at the keyboard, interesting things began to happen, and his fiction-writing self “got a real boost”.
Last month Saunders launched the “natural extension” to his teaching and that book: Story Club, a subscription newsletter on Substack. In his twice-weekly 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 tales knocked back by the New Yorker. One week after launch, thousands had already subscribed.
But why does Saunders want to do it? What wisdom, if any, does he want to impart? He won MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships in 2006 off the back of his first short-story collections, and since then the awards and accolades have rolled in. There was the Folio prize for Tenth of December in 2014, and in 2017 a Booker for Lincoln in the Bardo, his first – and so far, only – novel. It is set in the graveyard where Abraham Lincoln’s son was buried, and populated by a troupe of restless ghosts. But even before he wrote it, Saunders was a literary celebrity. David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, Miranda July and Ben Stiller voiced the audiobook. All of which means: “At this point,” Saunders says, speaking on the phone from his home in Corralitos, California, “I’m like a grizzled eminence.”
He could be locking himself away to write the “big War and Peace-type novel that spans 10 or 15 years and goes into a lot of people’s heads” that he’s spoken about recently. But instead, eminence has taught Saunders to weigh the extra potency it gives his teaching. “If my bit of disapproval or indifference or praise has an undue effect, good.” He is 63, and his age seems to fidget at the edge of his vision. In a podcast with Substack, he said he joined the platform because he “hated” the idea of losing the wisdom that students have imparted to him over the years. (It is typical of his magnanimity that he posits himself as the gatherer of others’ wisdom rather than the purveyor of his own.) “I thought: ‘So when I’m done with this life, that’s gone …’” Confronting that idea made him feel “a little miffed”, so he came up with Story Club.
In his genial introduction he describes how he sees the club working: “The writer is a person running through some winter woods, wearing ice skates. The creative writing programme (or Story Club) is a frozen pond that suddenly appears: you are, of course, still using your own natural energy (because what else could you use?), are still headed in ‘your’ direction – only now, you’re moving faster.
“So, as in that metaphor, the writer doesn’t have to worry, or obsess, or get her ducks in a row, or plan: she just has to skate, which means she has to be energetic in relation to the challenges the teacher puts in front of her; willing to take them on in a spirit of: ‘Well, what the heck – it might help.’”
His first newsletter includes a photograph of his solitary 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 rooftops. Just the shed surrounded by trees and the shadows of trees. Writers’ rooms are usually reclusive. But Saunders is using his to host a writing community. Why does he care? “I suppose one of the things that a person worries about along the way is, ‘Does this really matter?’”
He got an answer to this question as soon as the letters started to arrive from readers of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Saunders has always had a healthy mailbag. “But those letters about the Russian book … People were saying they were going through a hard time and the book spoke to them. It wasn’t anything philosophical. It was just the feeling of another human voice talking to them.” Saunders is a great writer, and part of the greatness is that reading him feels very much like being spoken to kindly.
This might be why some people wrote to add their observations to his readings of the stories. Others wrote to disagree. One woman argued for close study of the horse in Tolstoy’s Master and Man. “And she’s absolutely right,” he says. When somebody writes to say “‘I hated your novel’, that’s not so fun”. But if they respond to a story, “that’s a classroom conversation”, right there in the shed. Saunders’s wisdom of teaching is: “Make energy. You feel the temperature rise, then it’s like everybody in the room has ripened.”
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain advocates the closest kind of close reading. There are diagrams and grids, nuts and bolts. Saunders studied engineering at university and he loves “that close, almost engineering way” of approaching text. “I find it really comforting to think that it’s a process,” he says. But the approach provides other kinds of solace, too.
“To go up in that shed every day was so helpful.” It was, he says, a way of saying: “‘I can’t control the world.’ We do so much projective worrying. There are all these feeds coming into our house, into our heads, telling us all the horrible things that are happening … And we welcome it in … ” But if a person chooses instead to “check on a cool story, you are concentrating on something, and you are watching your own mind react to it. I think that is good in the way that meditation is good.
“For me, the pandemic – I see it as a little 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 being a ghost would, make a little pause. Like: ‘Hah! Wow! This world is crazy. It’s wonderful. I wish I was in it again!’ And of course the hope is that we’ll get back in it.”
As well as lifting you out of the anxiety of the pandemic, such close reading, he believes, is key to writing your own work. When Saunders went into teaching mode in his shed, he says, “I suddenly was seeing ideas all over the place.” Ordinarily he’s “a one-or-two-stories-a-year person”. But after he finished A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he wrote four in 18 months, and has sent off the manuscript for his next collection. The effect of reading so closely was “like listening to a bunch of great albums and trying to take them apart, and suddenly you’re musical”.
“This is so corny,” he says, but one night, soon after he had completed A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he “actually had a dream of 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 usually do this. But I got all the way to the end of it at three in the morning.” He then spent a year revising.
Saunders says Substack won’t take him away from the great novel, “because I don’t know what it is”. He just knows there is a hankering for such a thing, and he wonders if he “could write about regular people in America”. As he puts it: “I got to come to the table as a published writer with the first couple of books that were very funny and sci-fi and dystopian. So now I feel like I’m coming on a journey to figure out to what extent that chimes with my actual feelings about life. I guess I want to make sure that what I’m doing is not in any way trivial. In other words, that it would speak to people in the future, that it would be a properly, very properly, recognised book, the light and the darkness in human existence. When I think about War and Peace, that took a real swing at it … So I just want to take a really good swing at it.”
Besides, he says: “I don’t like relaxing. My policy is [to] overload myself. I work better with less sleep and I work better with more work.”
To learn more or to subscribe to receive George’s work in 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 are 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) according to how he feels when he rereads his own words. He checks the needle each sentence. If it points to N, he revises. He revises till the needle points to P for the entire text.
2 Number the drafts
Saunders calls this “psychological self‑gaming”. Every time there’s a big change, he renumbers the draft. “I can go back, and say: ‘Oh, I’m on 98.’” Does he get into the thousands? “It depends how you count them.”
Revision is “not meaningful unless I print,” he says. “There’s a visual difference in reading on the page versus the computer. I don’t trust it unless I’m reading a hard copy.”
4 Know when you over-revise
Those new to writing should overwrite just “to get a familiarity with their particular world. We have to learn our individual symptoms” of over-revision. “For me,” Saunders says, “the symptom is the humour goes out of it.”
5 Any time can be good time
“Productivity and time at desk are not necessarily linearly related,” Saunders says. “When I used to have that engineering job, I was never writing more than 40 minutes at a time. And then I would sit down and do that little mental thing: ‘I hereby permit you to write at your desk. Go ahead. Cut the bullshit. Cut to the chase.’”
6 Face the problems in your story
“If you try to deny the problem and write in spite of the problem in a story you’re writing, it is not going to be very good. But if you say to yourself in the story: ‘You got a problem, haven’t you?’ then the result is going to be better because it’s honest.”
7 Avoid thinking about your book’s big themes
“If there’s a little idea that comes to me that’s not sucky, that kind of interests me, I go: ‘OK, I’m going to do that.’ But at that point your mind starts saying: ‘And the reason I’m doing 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 will tell us what it’s about.’”