#148: How to be a thrilling little machine

“Essentially, the whole process is: intuition plus iteration” – George Saunders

Good morning friends

I have wanted to write this letter for many months, but it has felt too difficult to get right, and then – surprise, surprise – I convinced myself that you wouldn’t like it. So, I put it off. And off. And off.

But in that way that ideas that want us to be better do, it kept asking me to write it… So, here we are. Listening to an insistent letter, trying to be better.

In November 2021, I read George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life).

Saunders is an acclaimed short-story writer, the author of nine books, and has been a creative writing professor at Syracuse University for more than twenty years. He has been awarded MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, he’s won the Booker Prize, in 2013 Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. You get the idea.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is based on Saunders’ Russian short story course that he teaches to his creative writing MFA students. It is structured around the work of Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol. You know, the greats.

After each story, he peels back the layers behind the words, he reveals the mechanics of the magic.

The greats, explained by a great. And here we are, wobbling on their shoulders.

As I read, I wondered “what if we could live our lives like they wrote their stories?” Or, more accurately, what beauty might we bring to our lives if we were as intentional in living as they were in writing? What would happen if we saw each day as a paragraph to be crafted with the utmost care? What would we change if we looked at our life as a draft, filled with potential, able to be improved by a little attention and polish?

Saunders describes a great short story as “a radically shaped little machine that thrills us with the extremity of its decisiveness”.

Imagine if we could describe our lives in that way.

And so, today’s letter meanders through Saunders’ reflections on writing, with the intent of finding lessons on how to be a thrilling little machine.

Surprise yourself

The book starts as promised. He deconstructs. He explains. He amazes. As I read, I could see more. My world expanded.

But then, after the second story – Turgenev’s The Singers – he questions his approach (and us for blithely following him), the idea that we have an idea, we use the techniques, and hey presto, we pull the rabbit from the hat. Simple. But it never happens like that. We know that.

In every expression of excellence, there is more than technique. There is something else, unknowable, mysterious.

Saunders says, “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 clearcut intention and then confidently executing same.  The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and beautiful and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.”

That is liberating, intimidating, and complex.

Liberating: we don’t need to know everything upfront in order to act. Intimidating: we need to be alive to the mystery, to observe carefully, for if we don’t, we might miss our masterpiece. Complex: execution changes the idea. There was an idea but as we acted, the idea transformed. Ideas shape actions, actions craft ideas. The lines blur.

He continues, “To write a story that works, that moves the reader, is difficult, and most of us can’t do it. Even among those who have done it, it mostly can’t be done. And it can’t be done from a position of total control, of flawless mastery, of simply having an intention and then knowingly executing it. There’s intuition involved and stretching – trying things that are at the limit of our capabilities that, that may cause mistakes”.

He tells us work of art “has to surprise its audience, which it can do only if it has legitimately surprised its creator.”

Life is never quite a join-the-dots, paint-by-numbers, seven-easy-steps process.

Radically shaping our little machine of life requires that we surprise ourselves. To do that, we must let go of complete control.

Use your voice.

Then, to complicate matters, he quotes Flannery O’Connor’s “The writer can choose what he writes about, but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.”

He comments “It’s kind of crazy but, in my experience, that’s the whole game: (1) becoming convinced that there is a voice inside you that really, really knows what it likes, and (2) getting better at hearing that voice and acting on its behalf.”

Initially, it may not be the voice that you aspire to have. You might have spent decades practicing with a voice that just isn’t yours. But, if you take a risk, and work with the voice that seems to be whispering to you, you might just surprise yourself (and delight us).

As Saunders guides us through how the masters use the techniques of their chosen craft, he gently points to how Turgenev is being Turgenev, and Gogol is Gogol. Each celebrated, each immortal, each different, each themselves.

And so, the first lesson we might take is that to write the story of our lives, we must know ourselves or, more precisely, we must uncover what story we can best tell.

If only that were as easy as it sounds, and to make matters worse it implies that before we can act, we need to know unequivocally who we are.

Delight yourself.

Saunders says, at least for writers, the reality is wonderfully simple.

As he writes, he asks “Does this delight me?”

If it delights him, it energises him. and the energy enlivens his writing.

As he writes, he revises, choosing different words, adjusting sentences and paragraphs, shaping and reshaping the story according to what gives him energy. And, as he sculpts it, it becomes more unique, more him, and as that happens, he becomes more himself, his writing becomes more Georgey.

And so, knowing ourselves is an iterative process of finding delight, experimenting with it, observing what works, discovering and moulding ourselves.

We are already in the marble of possibility, and we are the artist shaping what emerges.

He reflects, “We’ll find our voice and ethos and distinguish ourselves from all the other writers in the world without needing to make any big overarching decisions, just by the thousands of small ones we make as we revise.”

Listen, act, revise.

That first principle is now more textured.

It becomes letting go of perfection, listening, learning through acting, listening again, revising, striving to improve, looking for what delights you, following the flow, and then, you might momentarily catch a glimpse of yourself in the river of life.

Tolstoy was born Tolstoy. Tolstoy made himself Tolstoy.

Value your audience.

Saunders reflects that what excites him about writing is that “The reader is out there, and she’s real. She’s interested in life and, by picking up our work, has given us the benefit of the doubt. All we have to do is engage her. To engage her, all we have to do is value her.”

This is true for life. We all have our audience. To engage them, value them.

And so now we have two ingredients – act in ways that delight us and value our audience.

Be delightful.

He tells us that good writers create expectations, and they respond to them by evolving the story in a manner that is consistent with what their audience now hopes to read.

It is a good principle for life, when we create expectations and fulfil them, we build trust. When we do so in surprising and innovative ways, we create delight. When we create expectations that we don’t deliver on we become untrustworthy. When we deliver on expectations in pedestrian ways, our lives become unremarkable.

He advises that there are two writing principles: “Don’t make things happen for no reason” and “Having made something happen, make it matter.”

Imagine what your story would look like if you made each moment matter.
Saunders reflects that sometimes in writing the author knows exactly what needs to happen next, but he holds back, fearful that if he puts in on paper, he will be left with nothing left for the remainder of the story.

He advises, “If you know where a story is going, don’t hoard it. Make the story go there, now. But then what? What will you do next? You’ve surrendered your big reveal. Exactly. Often, in our doubt that we have a real story to tell, we hold something back, fearing that we don’t have anything else. And this can be a form of trickery. Surrendering that thing is a leap of faith that forces the story to attention, saying to it, in effect, ‘You have to do better than that, and now that I’ve denied you your trick, your first-order solution, I know that you will.’”

How often in life do you know what your next move is, but you hold back, fearful that it is your last move?

Well, following Saunders, once you’re there, you’ll do better.

The alternative is to hold back, and your story stagnates. Or you bank that early ending, let the story drag out and in the dying moments you reveal it with a flourish, at which point you might ask your life “was that it?”

Don’t be crappo.

Saunders says that ‘ritual banality avoidance’ is essential to good writing.

He explains “If we deny ourselves the crappo version of our story, a better version will (we aspirationally assume) present itself. To refuse to do the crappo thing is to strike a de facto blow for quality. (If nothing else, at least we haven’t done that.)”

If you take nothing else from today’s meandering, take that – refuse to be the crappo version of yourself.

He suggests that writers imagine they are bouncers “… roaming through Club Story, asking each part, ‘Excuse me, but why do you need to be in here?’ In a perfect story, every part has a good answer. (‘Well, uh, in my subtle way, I am routing energy to the heart of the story.’)”

Imagine assigning those bouncers to your life, asking your actions of the last week ‘Excuse me what are you doing in this life?’

If we are to build masterpieces, then each of those actions (and inactions) should have a good answer – “Well, I am helping this person live their best life in this way.”

So, seek delight, value your audience, deliver on expectations in surprising ways, don’t be crappo, make your actions meaningful, revise when it doesn’t work, listen, and deploy the banality bouncers.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain runs to nearly 400 pages. It is a lot to take in. T

If today has been too much, take these two ideas – ‘Don’t worry. Work’ and ‘Make people love life’ (and of course, don’t be crappo).

Don’t worry. Work.

Saunders recounts an anecdote told to him by a student.

“Robert Frost came to a college to give a reading. An earnest young poet stood up and asked a complex, technical question about the sonnet form, or something like that.
Frost took a beat, then said: ‘Young man, don’t worry: WORK!’”

Don’t get stuck trying to find the perfect answer. Whilst technique and craft are critical, so too is work. The full answer only ever emerges in action. So, when in doubt, work.

Make people love life

And finally, remember Tolstoy, “The aim of the artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably but to make people love life in all its countless inexhaustible manifestations.”

Whether we like it or not, every day we write the story of our lives. We can do so with intention and care. We can leave the pages blank. We can regurgitate cliché, or we can create ‘a radically shaped little machine that thrills us.’

All the best


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