Dennis Bouldin spends January with George

I was recently pleased, even surprised to read several pre-publication reviews in the general media of a new book by George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, subtitled “in which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading, and life.”

I do not attempt here to match the coverage of professional reviewers. What I hope you’ll find interesting is my perspective as a fellow member of the Burlington Writers Workshop.

Just last November, I work-shopped an essay for a BWW creative non-fiction session, “The Writers Over My Shoulder,” which addresses:

  • my history as a writer,
  • some of the advice that is available to writers,
  • and how a discussion among “reader/writers” should differ from that among a group of “readers only.”

Primary conclusion: I’m an amateur. Secondary conclusion: it’s hard to imagine much of an audience for my piece or any piece on this subject other than writers.

Or maybe there is. Did my confrere George get wind of my work, disagree with my limited-audience reservation, and realize a book like this could represent the leading edge of a popular trend? If so, he knows how to crank it out… A Swim is 400+ pages set in small Bodoni Book type. Adhering to BWW guidelines, my piece was 14 pages of double-spaced, Times New Roman, font size 12.

The local Phoenix Books had a copy of A Swim for me on publication day, January 12, 2021. The rest of the month, whenever time and mental alacrity allowed, I sat in my comfy chair, turned on Vermont Public Radio classical, and shared January with George Saunders.

Am I stretching it saying George and I are “confreres?” OK, there are a few details that separate us:

He focuses on fiction (seven 19th century Russian short stories – though the success of his Lincoln in the Bardo shows he can also handle book length work). I read and write almost exclusively creative non-fiction. (Though, coincidentally, one of the few fiction books I’ve read in the past few years is Lincoln. So back there sometime was another week or two I enjoyed sharing with George.)

The workshops he has led at Syracuse University for more than 20 years involve six young writers chosen from a pool of hundreds of “already excellent” applicants as Saunders puts it. My fellow workshop participants tend to be much older than college age, with a sole selection criterion of being able to sign up on Meetup. Our skill levels are most honestly described as “aspiring.”

He gives out MFA degrees, I only took one English class in college – right after the era when J. D. Salinger was in vogue.

He’s won numerous awards, popular acclaim… well, you get the point.

But while I may lack Saunders’ experience, fame, dedication, skills and natural talents, I claim we are both serious authors, working hard to make our writing as good as it can be. That’s “confrere” enough for me.

Of the many points I could discuss here, I take up only one: revision.

If there was a Babylonian cuneiform tablet on “how to be a good writer,” surely the first item it emphasized was, “revise, revise, revise!” Saunders agrees. But reading his discussion, for the first time, I think I appreciate what is actually going on. In an earlier essay, I discussed a statement by Graves & Hodge in The Reader Over Your Shoulder, “Prose… is expected to reveal its full content at first reading.” I puzzled over the challenges, perhaps even contradictions of a writer going over and over the same piece (which I always feel compelled to do), while the reader most likely reading it just once, and even then maybe being just partially engaged.

What Saunders teaches me is that both writing and reading at their best are not fully conscious activities. A reader may zip through what we write and not “get” much of what we’re saying. But if our writing has depth and is really well done, the reader will have altered feelings – if not LIFE CHANGING, at least life changing. We ourselves may not get 100% of what we’re saying and how this writer-to-reader communication really happens. This connecting with the inner reader doesn’t involve a consciously applied algorithm; “make sure to do this, don’t do that.” It’s an act of intuition, an ability developed by reading, and re-reading, applied by revising our own work as many times as it takes to make it feel right.

Saunders uses the metaphor of a batter trying to hit a curve ball.

No matter how much one reads about it, the judgment, eye-to-body coordination, and motor memory that are needed are achieved by practice, perhaps with coaching, but practice all the same. And the reality is, few people, hardly any people, will ever be able to hit a curve ball like a good big leaguer can. But, I tell myself — and I’m sure Saunders would agree — if one appreciates and enjoys the challenge of the game, even in the minor leagues, even in the amateur leagues, the effort is worth it.

I don’t believe his views always totally apply to creative non-fiction. I don’t always find his example pieces to be the top, top level masterpieces he claims them to be – though I do appreciate how he explains why he does. These reservations don’t matter. As inexperienced as I am, maybe I discovered and continue to discover insights on writing in A Swim that would be old news to you. But I doubt it.

If you are serious about being a writer, read his book. Even in the unlikely event Saunders has nothing to say about writing that’s new to you, about 2/3 of the book is about him. In addition to the many exclamation points and “yeahs” I’ve written in the margins, my copy has scores of smiley faces, places where I was particularly struck, amused, in some cases even compelled to chuckle out loud. Saunders is writing creative non-fiction in this instance. The subtitle is inaccurate. It is he who gives the master class. Yes, on writing and reading, but even more so on life.