George Saunders turns an engineer’s lens toward writing, reading

by | Apr 6, 2021 | Skill Set, Spring 2021 | 0 comments

Are there laws of fiction as there are laws of physics? George Saunders ’81 poses that question in his latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, as he breaks down seven iconic Russian short stories with the eye of a engineer turned writer and investigates the mechanics of making great stories work.

But Saunders goes beyond the technical examination of words on a page to turn his lens toward humanity and also examine what stories can tell us about ourselves and the world today. “The part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world,” he writes.

We asked Saunders about his new book, writing fiction and the similarities he sees between the engineering and writing processes.

Mines Magazine: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain originated from a class you teach in Syracuse University’s MFA program. How did you decide to translate that classroom experience into a book?

George Saunders: I’d just come back to teaching after some time off and had one of those wonderful days in the classroom when the distinction between student and teacher vanishes. As the students filed out, it really hit me how much teaching had meant to me over the (20-some) years I’d been doing it—those many moments of genuine connection across all of the usual divides (age, gender, class, race). So, since I’m not getting any younger, I decided to put down some of the insights on the Russian short story that, with my students, I’d developed over the years. Before it was, you know, too late.

MM: Did you learn or discover anything new while you were turning the class into book form?

Saunders: Oh, yes. That’s what I love about writing, that sense of discovery as you try to put something you thought you knew into words—turns out, you didn’t know it or didn’t know it fully enough. I had 20 years of classroom notes to work with and thought that maybe writing the book would just be the process of formalizing those. But then, getting into the stories again, being forced into precision by the essay form, the stories opened up to me in completely different ways. I was especially interested to see how the inherent purpose in many of the stories seemed to be to put the reader in a temporary state of suspended judgment—to neutralize her normal habit of feeling that knowing (definitively, once and for all) was the goal. These stories seemed to say that a higher aspiration is to be confident enough to stay open and thereby continue to let the data keep flowing in. And they essentially model this, via their form and, maybe, show us how to get better at (briefly) attaining that state of open-mindedness.

MM: At several points in the book, you reference your engineering background. How have your experiences and training as an engineer contributed to how you approach writing and how you teach your MFA students?

Saunders: Well, the greatest lesson I learned at Mines was that hard work is the gateway to everything. I wasn’t, let’s say, the most natural student of engineering. But what I learned was that short-term failure isn’t the end. We have to push on. (If we don’t quit, we haven’t yet failed.)

So now, when I’m writing a story and it isn’t working, I don’t turn any sort of negative judgment on myself (well, or not much). I just try to feel—as I did all those years ago, struggling with differential equations or complex variables—that all I have to do is keep working in a positive way and move in the direction of a solution. And if do fail, that failure isn’t me. Failure, so-called, is part of the process of searching for truth (it’s the process telling you, “You’re not there yet”), and that process is an admirable one.

Another valuable thing I learned at Mines was the idea of approaching a task like a scientist, like a problem-solver, muttering those sacred words, “Huh, this is interesting.” You might have an idea in mind at the outset (a hypothesis or a big plan for your book), but you want to hold that pretty lightly, not be attached to it. The main job is to see how things really are (in the physical world or in the story in progress) and respond to that. So, it’s more about exploration—moving toward a truth—than it is about knowing the truth in advance and just finding a way to prove it.

Finally, the beauty of rigor. When I got back my thermodynamics test and it had “D-, SEE ME!!” written across the top of it—that was rigor in action. (A valid response wasn’t going to be, “But I tried so hard!”) When I’ve been working on a story for four years and it still isn’t any good, I don’t get to say, “Yes, but I’ve put in the required amount of time.” Instead, I always recall that Mines mantra, “No partial credit.” It was good to learn that, with the help of my Mines professors, when I was still young.

MM: Writing and engineering are often seen as dichotomous disciplines, but it could be said that they are simply different ways of interpreting one’s place in the world and seeking a better understanding of the problems we strive to overcome. Do you agree with that, and what do you think are the intersections between writing and engineering?

Saunders: I do agree with that. One thing they have in common is the notion that to solve a big problem is to solve a lot of smaller problems. That’s a very powerful thing, since it always offers the problem-solver a way to proceed—no need to get stuck in the conceptual/worrying phase—just break the thing into parts and get going.

Also, in both disciplines, there’s that essential stage where you are simply looking at a thing unaffectedly, trying to really see it, with as few concepts or projections about it as possible. Then, a reaction arises—an instinct, a hypothesis, a sense of how to proceed. But that first step is so important, in so many areas of life. Can we see a thing clearly and bless our reaction to it (i.e., accept that first reaction as a valid starting place)? Can we cultivate in ourselves that gentle confidence and sense of play and curiosity? Or do we deny it because it feels too unsophisticated or because we haven’t heard that reaction described before (i.e., are we uncomfortable with originality?)?

In writing, as in science, there’s a lot of value in just honestly stating the problem. If a story isn’t going well and I honestly state the problem as, “This story gets boring right around page three,” well, suddenly the fix is fairly obvious (“Make it less boring on page three”). But it’s easy to get stuck in that very unscientific state, denial.

Engineering and writing also share the invaluable idea of iteration. Some writers have this mystical idea that the story comes to them all at once, while they are in a state of inspiration.  I’ve never had that experience. When I’m writing a story, I’m going through the thing hundreds or thousands of times, micro-adjusting to taste, trusting that this iterative application of my preferences (my attempts to be more truthful, really) will gradually move the story to higher ground. So, the focus is not on some Big Truth at which I’ve already arrived, which I’m trying to perfectly convey or prove—I don’t know what truth I’m wandering toward. I’m just trying to be truthful in every little moment. And this feels scientific to me, this sense of continually asking, “Huh, I wonder what might be true?” and “How might I most honor truth at this point in the process?”

MM: In the book, you describe fiction—particularly the Russian stories you analyze—as a “vital moral-ethical tool” that sparks an emotional change in the reader. How does what we learn from fiction compare to the knowledge we gain from the sciences and nonfiction sources?

Saunders: Well, my experience has been that good stories get written from a part of ourselves that is very deep and that we access best via intuition—we might call it the subconscious. Working from that place, we can produce, in a work of art, places of ambiguity and shades of nuance that the conceptual mind can’t get to. That is, a piece of writing whose aim is to “state what is already known” or “decide definitively” isn’t doing the highest work of fiction. So, there’s a form of wisdom, to which human beings have access, which is very valuable to us, that we can’t get to by way of our usual, every-day, reductive mode of thought. A work of art might be seen as a long journey taken with that part of the mind. So, it’s very rational, in a way—we’ve learned, as a species, over our thousands of years of life on Earth that to live in the best and most enlightened and compassionate way, we need to use everything we’ve got, including, especially, that part of the mind that art reminds us is real and very wise (the part of the mind out of which a work of art comes).

All of this to say, there are very real and tangible things that we learn from great art and great art alone that can make us stronger as a culture, more adaptable, more loving, more truthful, more powerful.

MM: At the end of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, you clarify that everything in the book (and your class) is “according to George” and that the lessons and “rules of fiction” you presented are far from any kind of manifesto or “how-to” manual. Why do you feel it’s important to clarify your lessons in this way, and do you think this applies to all types of mentorship and instruction?

Saunders: Writing is so complicated and wonderful and personal that, like anything worth doing, general advice will only get us so far. A story comes out of the fruitful intersection of an individual mind (with all its quirks and apparent defects and preferences and so on at work) and the form itself.  The best writing advice would be given to a particular person, via a particular work of hers, at a specific time in her trajectory, in the form of precise written notes on that particular story. And those notes would be given, of course, by another writer, working from within his own system of quirks and apparent defects and preferences and so on. So it all has to be approached gently, with real humility on both sides, I think. In the same way that, in science, we always want to factor in the limitations of our study, we also need to factor in the inherent difficulty of the teaching process—the problems that arise from it, its blind spots and hidden assumptions.

MM: How do you think A Swim in a Pond in the Rain can appeal to non-writers?

Saunders: Well, at some level, reading and writing are the same task. The same part of the mind is engaged in both. The writer says something, the reader reacts. She finds her mindstate slightly altered. Then the writer says the next thing. They are in connection, playing a kind of high-stakes game. In a sense, both parties are writing the story, causing it to come alive. (If I write, “A man walked down the road toward a large white house,” you supply the man, the road, the house—and a bunch of other things, trees along the road, the season and so on.) So the whole process might be seen as a form of intimate, interactive communication. To study reading or writing—to look closely at how those activities proceed—is really just to study the way two human minds interact. It’s a form of asking, “Can two human beings engage in fruitful conversation, and, if so, how?”

We are, in every moment, reading the world. We look out at it, make an initial projection (a first draft) and then, based on incoming sensory data, we modify the draft—in the direction of increased specificity and precision. Why do we do that? To be more in touch with reality, with truth.

And it’s interesting, that contemporary neuroscience finds a corollary in the way the brain works—it starts (near the back of the head) with a rough draft of a moment, based on other, similar moments, then refines that draft (moving toward the front of the head), using incoming sensory data.

MM: Why is fiction still important today?

Saunders: Another way of understanding the process of reading fiction is to ask, “Since I know this story is invented, what makes me stay in it?” And the answer is that we are feeling the story to be fundamentally truthful. Something in it is affirming our sense, developed out of our experience of living, of how things are. There’s real pleasure in this. If we continue to read a book, it’s in part because of this feeling of pleasant affirmation—this feeling that we are in the face of truth. On the other hand, if we’re reading along and the writer says, “That June morning I crossed the quad, walking toward the Bird Library, across a field of fresh-cut grass that smelled, as such fields always do, of burnt rubber and salsa,” we stop, feeling, “Wait a second, that is not right, that does not jibe with my experience of fields of fresh-cut grass.” And we get thrown out of the story. So, one of the things I say in the book is that reading is an ongoing referendum on truth—thousands of moments of us asking, as we read, “True or false?”

So, one thing reading fiction can do for us is fine-tune our truth detectors—it can remind us that we have truth detectors that have been developed and honed over all of these years of human life, for Darwinian purposes. It also refines our ability to spot falseness when it appears in language (there is always a “tell” when someone is lying, a syntactical or stylistic tell, as George Orwell pointed out in his wonderful essay, “Politics and the English Language)—a valuable skill in the contemporary political landscape, where so much of the communication is agenda-laden, its goal not to explore or enlighten but to subjugate by trickery. So much of the information that rushes in to fill our heads every day is coming to us from afar, with a submerged intention, by technological means algorithmically designed to agitate us. Reading a story is, for me, like stepping out into the clear light of day. It’s been written by one person, with a holy intention (to connect), and it’s been written over and over, in order to connect better.

Fiction can, arguably, help us become more empathetic—it opens us up to the idea that other people might be as real as we are after all. It does this by locating us into the head of another person for a dozen pages or so. We become that person temporarily, and, being them (surprise, surprise), we come to love them a little bit—another thing the world might benefit from these days. In a sense, that’s what love is—the willingness to pay attention to another person, on the assumption that you are her and she is you, if only we can see deeply enough.