A Swim in a Pond in the Rain - George Saunders

We Begin (Introduction)

Achieving the Iconic space: the space only one single author/voice can write from, requires technical ability, the goal of the MFA as taught by Saunders “the goal is to help them acquire the technical means to become defiantly and joyfully themselves”

Why stories? Why write?

“The resistance in the stories is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind”

  • the last part seems a bit of a grandiose statement, but the first part (every single human being is worthy of attention) resonates deeply
    • see also Simone Weil: “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” brainpickings

On why Saunders is drawn to these stories: “The Russians… worked on me in the same way. They seemed to regard fiction not as something decorative but as a vital moral-ethical tool. They… made the world… a story… in which you had responsibilities.”

  • I paraphrased the last bit because it seemed to get at the crux of it. If every human being is worthy of attention, then you have a responsibility to give that attention responsibly, ethically, vitally, as a writer.

“… the aim of the art – namely, to ask the big questions: How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth anyway, and how might we recognize it? How can we feel any peace when some people have everything and others have nothing? How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seems to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?”

  • what are our responsibilities, and how do we bear them?

On the craft of the short story itself:

“the physics of the form”

“What I really want to talk about is the short story form itself, and these are good short stories for that purpose: simple, clear, elemental” (a warning against taking these as canon; a plea to question assumptions and statements)

“For a story to ask those questions, we first have to finish it… so the aim of this book is mainly diagnostic: If a story drew us in, kept us reading, made us feel respected, how did it do that?”

“The basic drill I’m proposing here is: read the story, then turn your mind to the experience you’ve just had. Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something your resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any lingering questions about the story? Any answer is acceptable. If you… felt it, it’s valid.

Main goal: “What did we feel and where did we feel it? (All coherent intellectual work begins with a genuine reaction.)”

“The idea here is that working closely with the stories will make them more available to us as we work on our own… this… forced acquaintance with them will inform the swerves and instinctive moves that are so much a part of what writing actually is, from moment to moment.”

“… the goal (“the moon”) is to attain the state of mind from which we might write such a story”

On reading

“What we’re going to be doing here, essentially, is watching ourselves read… why…? … the part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy…”

“If a model appeals to you, use it. If not, discard it. In Buddhism, it’s said that a teaching is like “a finger pointing at the moon.” The moon (enlightenment) is the essential thing and the pointing finger is trying to direct us to it, but it’s important not to confuse finger with moon.”

In the Cart - Anton Chekhov (A Page at a Time)


“And Bill said this: ‘Well, I read a line. And I like it… enough to read the next.’”

“A story is a linear-temporal phenomenon. It proceeds, and charms us (or doesn’t) , a line at a time.”

  • do all stories have to be written in order? stories are experienced in temporal order, but they do not proceed in temporal order

“Why do we keep reading a story? Because we want to. Why do we want to? That’s the million-dollar question.”

“Are there laws for fiction, as there are laws of physics?… What forges bond between reader and writer and what breaks it? Well, how would we know? One way would be to track our. mind as it moves from line to line”

“A story.. makes its meaning at speed… We read a bit of text and a set of expectations arises

Page-by-page Read

In A Page at a Time, Saunders takes us page by page (then, two pages by two pages) through In a Cart, encouraging us to watch out for our own reactions – the development of expectation, and of empathy – as the story progresses. He digs into what it even means for a story to progress, and also what it is that makes this a story (it arguably is not, until the final scene).

Summary of In the Cart: Marya Vasilyevna is a teacher in a small town who is exhausted by the monotony and inescapability of her life. As she rides in a cart from a neighboring town back to her own home, she meets a bumbling aristocrat on the road, Hanov, and he and her driver Semyon serve as foils for and sources of her assumptions and imaginations. Finally, near the end of the journey, after the goods she bought in town were ruined in a water crossing, she sees a vision of her mother on a train, and is momentarily transformed by the recollection of her childhood.

Page 1

As with most things, we begin with very few expectations, maybe none, maybe something from the title (In the Cart – a location, okay). Saunders encourages us to answer three questions:

  1. Look away from the page and summarize.. what you know so far… in one or two sentences.
  2. What are you curious about?
  3. Where do you think the story is headed?

After page one, where Marya is introduced, we have developed some expectations. This is the crux. By answering these questions, we in turn reflect, watch our minds as we read, as Saunders says, and as we get to know what our mind does as we read, we become better writers.

“He has, already, with this first page, caused certain expectations and questions to arise. you’ll feel the rest of the story to be meaningful and coherent to the extent that it responds to these (“or takes them into account or “exploits them”).”

“We might say that what’s happened over the course of this (first) page is that the path the story is on has narrowed… now it has become, slightly, “about” something.”

I won’t get too much into the analysis of any specific story’s plot in these notes.. but just the general takeaways.

Chekhov creates tension, by opposing the environment with aspects of itself (warm sun, lingering snow), and Marya’s interior state (gorgeous day, unhappiness).

This tension sets the stage for the appearance of our main character: Marya, who “appears in the cart at the sound of her name.”

Already of course, there are choices being made, and Saunders makes us aware of the choices that Chekhov has made (that we are aware of, in our bodies, e.g. we feel these choices but may not intellectually recognize them) – e.g. Chekhov has chosen to make Marya unhappy, unhappy for a specific reason (monotony of her life), and also to place her in the company of Semyon, as opposed to anyone else he could have thought up. All this is in in service of increased specification.

More than any other critique, the feedback I most often give on admissions essays, proposals, fellowship applications, papers, stories, etc, is to increase specificity until you cannot anymore, until you become so detailed you lose the thread. People’s number one difficulty in writing, as I see it, is that they have a tendency to be too general. If your writing is too general – you fail to create an expectations.

There’s use in choices Chekhov makes – by making Marya unhappy, “the story has become restless” – that is, it now has a place to go.

Before you continue past the first page, ask: what now do you want to know?

Page 2

Marya could have arrived at her location (a bored school teacher in a tiny town in Russia) for any number of reasons – born there, called there, etc. Chekhov gives us her reason for being there: she lived. in Moscow until her parents died. This gives Marya a backstory, and an emotional state, and she becomes clearer to us as readers.

We might think of structure as simply: an organizational scheme that allows the story to answer a question that it has caused it’s reader to ask… If we want to make good structure, we just have to be aware of what question we are causing the reader to ask, then answer that question.

  • Marya and Semyon’s interactions are filed away… namely that Semyon (who now exists, who is there for a reason) is a driver & illiterate peasant who Marya doubts, and Marya goes back to thinking about school just after learning the mayor of Moscow was shot.
  • This section introduces another character: Hanov, a bumbling wealthy man
    • “We automatically expect that new element to alter or complicate or deepen the situation.”
    • Chekhov has established that Marya is unhappy… so we are already waiting for something to alter that state… is Hanov the answer? (as a lover?)

the story didn’t stay static for long at all… the story is way faster, compressed, and exaggerated [than real life] – a place where something new always has to be happening, something relevant to that which has already happened

  • With Hanov introduced.. where might the story go?
    • “Scan your mind, make a list”

Which of your ideas feel too obvious… which, too random…? Chekhov’s challenge is to use these expectations he’s created but not too neatly.

Make a mental note of your expectations – what questions do you expect Chekhov to answer?

Page 3

  • This page is mostly an introduction of Hanov, and of Marya and Hanov’s previous interaction(s)
    • Hanov was an examiner at Marya’s school
    • Marya finds/found Hanov attractive
    • Hanov is warm and gentle, but also a bumbling drunk
    • (do we even want Marya to be interested in him?)
  • Chekhov has made Marya into a particular person, so her thoughts turn from Hanov (potential love interest, to readers) back to the school
    • “But Chekhov remembers the Marya he’s made. She’s lived here a long time. She knows Hanov and he knows her. She’s already, we suspect, thought about Hanov as a possible savior…”
      • This is how Chekhov adds depth of character – he adds world memory, which informs response and interaction

Page 4

  • Marya interrupts her thinking about the school, returns briefly to Hanov.

    That self-interruption is a beautiful thing. It says: the mind can be two places at once.

  • “He’s not for her, and she knows it…. yet her mind keeps being lured back to him.” (think, a little semi-crush)
  • Each element of the story has to do work… as soon as it enters the story, it begins (we expect it to) serving a purpose

The road continues to worsen, muddy and running with the spring thaw.. .the road growing worse is both specifically real (a real description of a particular time of year) and a choice by Chekhov (as opposed to a road getting better). The road growing worse creates tension

A story is an organic whole, and when we say a story is good, we’re saying that it responds alertly to itself.

by the end of the page, Marya has turned against Hanov – he may be attractive, but he is passive, and fails to use his power/wealth to do much of anything other than drink.

  • For Marya, power means getting out of this town

One thing to note.. at the end of this page, we’re still not sure where the story is going.

Page 5 and 6

We can keep collecting small details (remember, no detail is small in a short story), like that Marya bought some goods in town. How will this be used later?

  • Marya further rules out Hanov as a romantic partner… and he literally rides right out of the story. Marya returns to thinking about the school… the third time she’s done this.
    • “The situation is not: two people ripe for love suddenly meet for the first time. It’s: two people, not exactly ripe for love (who if they were going to become involved would have done so years ago), meet again.”
    • Note that this means: our expectations were not too neatly met.. Hanov does not provide Marya an out for her loneliness
      • “This is an important storytelling move we might call ‘ritual banality avoidance.’
      • “No problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception” (Einstein misquote)

        We might think of a story as a system for the transfer of energy.

One of the accomplishments of this story is Chekhov’s representation of the way a lonely mind works

  • By removing Hanov from the story, Chekhov propels the story forward, past the obvious development, and deeper into the form
    • “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.”
      • Tempt with the obvious, but then to really move the story forward, remove it.

A work of art moves us by being honest, and that honesty is apparent in its language and its form and in its resistance to concealment

We are now faced with a much larger question: “What if a lonely person can find no way out of her loneliness?”

The Singers - Ivan Turgenev

The Darling - Anton Chekhov

Master and Man – Leo Tolstoy

The Nose - Nikolai Gogol

Gooseberries - Anton Chekhov

Alyosha the Pot – Leo Tolstoy

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