Swim in the Rain book cover with George Saunders headshot

Lessons on writing from four Russian masters (and George Saunders)

We live our life letting only some instruments in the orchestra play, so when we write fiction we can explore the rest. To create great fiction, we must emphatically pursue our “radical preference,” and remove everything else

Few do it as well as the greats from a 75-year period of Russian masters. So argues George Saunders, today’s most celebrated American fiction writer and a well-regarded writing professor, in his 2021 book: “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.”

He shares stories from four greats and intersperses his notes, based on a course he teaches. It’s approachable and generous. Below I share my notes for future reference.

My Notes:

  • The Einstein misquote: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception”
  • The Cart: “ritual banality avoidance” : introduces Hanov as a potential and obvious suitor for Maryav briefly and then he leaves the scene
  • Chekhov characters are neither good nor bad (1897)
  • “Every element should be a little poem, freighted with subtle meaning, that is in connection with the stories purpose”
  • Everything does work
  • Stuart Cornfield principe he calls it: Details need to be entertaining and move story in a “non trivial” way
  • “That’s really all a story is: a limited set of elements that we read against one another”
  • Checkov: art doesn’t have to solve problems, only formulate them correctly
  • An artist takes responsibility
  • Turgenev’s lengthy descriptions were breakthroughs of his era. As an aristocrat, he had this short story in Sportsman’s Sketched as literary anthropology, or “adventure journalist” as he traveled among rural peasants
  • We are at our most intelligent in the moment before we try to explain art. “Great art occurs – or doesn’t – in that instant “ making us feel or think about something. What we say is an after-effect; and the feeling is “superior” to our words
  • “The writer can choose what he writes about, “ wrote Flannery O’Connor, “but he cannot choose what he is able live.”
  • Saunders writing career journey: Climbed as high as he could up his “Hemingway mountain” but got stuck, when he found his wife laughing at the Suessisn poems he wrote at work and then he went down and began climbing a shit hill Saunders Mountain with what became The Wave Maker Falters
  • “The artist takes responsibility by giving it out. “ Final approval isn’t given just by one conscious mind.”
  • “A story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals “
  • Chekhov : “kukin fighting his fate, and assaulting his chief enemy, the apathetic public”
  • Freytag truancies
  • If you’re stuck in exposition, add the sentence: “and then some thing happened that changed everything forever”
  • “We think in the same way that we hear or see: within a narrow, survival enhancing range.”
  • Donald Barthelme said “the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do. “
  • Gerald Stearns said “if you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.”
  • Nabokov writes of Tolstoy’s “fundamental accuracy of perception,” and his writing is known for bringing to life many characters of stations but his wife Sonya would often write in her diaries about how Tolstoy didn’t support her at all
  • “The writer is not the person,” says George Saunders and as Milan Kundera wrote “Novelists, who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work” – says first draft of Anna Kaerinna was unsympathetic but drafts made her more round not because Tolstoy the man believes that but because “the wisdom of the novel”
  • Tolstoy’s Master and Man: Visili dreams of the debts owed to him as he tries to fall asleep, covering a man in a blizzard but he had pushed them out of the town of Grishinkl to try to buy land before others
  • Two qualities of writers that go on to publish: willingness to revise, and work to string together causality (A happens because of B)
  • EM Foster: Queen died and the king died; vs the king died of grief
  • “Vasili enjoys winning even a rigged race” of his sled passing drunken peasants — and in his business dealings and in his financial companions to his servant Nikita. In the end he is only redeemed by finally putting some else before him
  • Tolstoy on moral transformation in this story: it’s not a changed man but redirected energy he’s always had
  • Many moral failures of stories (like Tolstoy’s class bias of only ever having ideal simple peasants and so robbing Nikita interiority after the incident and before his death) can also be described as technical failures too
  • Fictional elements in a story tell us understand the “Psychological psychics” of the world by knowing whether we believe how these fictional units would happen
  • Russian “skaz “ unreliable narrator in Gogol story
  • Poetry: “ truth, forced out through a restricted opening,” so that can include corporate jargon or drunk talk or high elevated writing
  • Gogol often used Skaz as a way to distinguish from the earlier greats and because he himself grew up as a lower class (and late in life became only that brutish voice in his letters to friends, losing his wisdom
  • Chekhov story has the anecdote of a railway conductor who has his leg sliced off by the train and kept asking them to find it because he had a 20 bank note in his boot
  • Ivan’s speech: behind every happy man should be a man with a hammer reminding them of all the silent unhappy people
  • Rain on a hunting trip keeps Burkin mad but leads to Ivan swimming in the pond (archaic Russian plyos which means an open expanse of water) and beautifuk Pelageya (the silent doing all the work) has fresh towels: happiness is a conditional gift to enjoy
  • On Goosebsrries: “The story is not there to tell us what to think about happiness. It is there to help us think about it. It is, we might say, a structure to help us think.”
  • Fiction doesn’t support polemic well because it’s one sided: author creates all the elements
  • We live our life letting only some instruments in the orchestra play, so when we write fiction we can explore the rest
  • Henri Troyat’s biography of Chekhov tells the story he finally stopped avoiding meeting the legendary Tolstoy on Aug 8 1895, they took a swim together in the river at Tolstoy’s spot Yasnaya Polyana (gossberriss was written not long after their meeting)
  • Author says compare The Snowstorm and 40 years later he writes Master and Man with similar life experience; like we can compare an early Chaplin boxing match in The Champion before later in his classic City Lights. Masterpieces only follow practice
  • “I like what I like, and you like what you like, and art is the place where liking what we like, over and over, is not only allowed but is the essential skill. How emphatically can you like what you like? How long are you willing to work on something, to ensure that every bit of it gets infused with some trace of your radical preference? The choosing, the choosing, that’s all we’ve got.”
  • Plays with different translations of the final sentences of Alyosha the pot
  • Is it a story defending cheerful obedience or arguing such obedience is a gift to tyrants? We never learn the interiority to decide
  • How did 75 years of Russian literature excellence follow one of the bloodiest periods in human history?
  • Dave Hickey: when we say what art should be we start saying what it must do — silencing those who do otherwise
  • “Fiction helps us remember that everything remains to be seen.” Reminds us there are other worldviews out there

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