One of the greatest parts of having completed an MFA with some of the greatest writers of our day is that they have had experiences working with and learning alongside even greater writers of our day. On the other end of the spectrum, however, is the fact that many of my mentors have had experiences that I learn from only secondhand. While they regale me with anecdotes of their work in George Saunders’ workshops and teach me the bare-bones craft lessons they have learned from him (and others of course), I have harbored deep envy of their work with such a profound master. Additionally, the ideas that came from Saunders’ workshops and mentoring aren’t just for improving my work on the page, but like all literature examination, can have a profound impact on my interpretation and execution of literary and dramatic works in my classroom and on the stage as well. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that I will be in Saunders’ classroom anytime soon.
Of course, it is when authors replicate their classroom experience in a book that we can come somewhat close to it – and in a lot of ways, I prefer this sort of format as it often feels like a small one-on-one mini-workshop of the best bits, presented in the best way, right inside my head… And I can rewind as often as I like and use the same lessons with my students as well.
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain is Saunders’ first such book, and it is genius. The format is the same he uses at Syracuse University – pairing seven essays (as opposed to lectures) on the short story and craft with seven exceptional Russian short stories: “In The Cart” by Anton Chekhov, “The Singers” by Ivan Turgenev, “The Darling” by Anton Chekhov, “Master and Man” by Leo Tolstoy, “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol, “Gooseberries” by Anton Chekhov, “Alyosha the Pot” by Leo Tolstoy. The result is an examination of how the writers create the magic that they do. Our lens is pulled in as close as syntax and as far back as theme, and the approach is just as valuable to a writer as it would be to a reader trying to examine what makes certain works so great or a high school English teacher communicating to students how to reflect on a piece of writing and connect the what an author does to why they are doing it. In the hands of a master short story writer himself, the lessons and observations of these classics become a genius masterclass in reading and writing, and so, this book belongs on the bookshelf of any reader, writer, or teacher. It’s a masterful series of lessons from a master, and it is organized and executed on the written page so as to allow one to dip in whenever they need a refresher for themselves or their students.
I will be using this in my own writing as often as I will in my AP and college classrooms, and I will certainly be recommending it to my colleagues in every such sphere of my life. Saunders never fails to impress.