A Swim in the Pond with George Sunders – lessons on reading your own work: Part 1

by Aaron Cox

George Saunders’ new book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain has broken the drought. I can’t quite believe my last post was in 2017. Where has the time gone? Margaret Atwood says every writer has a fallow state, although I wonder if it is meant to last quite as long as my fallow epochs tend to last. Nevertheless, here I am, writing a post with particular gusto on this wintery January afternoon.

Reading Saunders has taken me back to the creative writing workshops I attended at Birkbeck about a decade ago and the writing classes I took as an undergraduate in Sydney a decade or so before that.

Creative writing is typically taught in workshops, each with a slightly different format, but they usually involve some form of peer scrutiny of your latest work. Until you get comfortable with the group, it can be quite a daunting process, a weird sort of stage fright that can leave you with mixed feelings of elation, niggling doubts about hidden subtext and a general desire to drink, possibly alone.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a lesson in reading as a writer (and, I guess, writing as a reader) and includes anecdotes about the classes George Saunders teaches on the MFA programme at Syracuse University. Saunders writes with empathy. He knows the drill. Writing fiction can be a tough gig.

I confess, I’ve only just scratched the surface and have only read the first of Saunders’ seven readings. But his page-by-page breakdown of Anton Chekhov’s In the Cart has done enough to inspire me to brush up on the ways of reading your own work that came up in numerous writing classes I’ve taken in the past.

Saunders starts by looking at the sorts of questions the first page of Chekhov’s story invokes in a reader. Questions about who the characters are, where they live and what events have brought them to be where they are, where the story is heading and why they might be interesting for us as readers. Questions that a writer is beholden to answer through the storytelling process. Regardless of the genre of story, or how playful and innovative it might be, that unwritten contract with your reader still stands.  

So, I thought it might be a useful exercise to ask these questions of the novella I’m writing (or novel, it’s too early to tell). The benefit of reading a published story from an accomplished writer, such as Chekhov, is that it delivers what Saunders wants it to do – it has been through a process of crafted and redrafted, loose ends have been sorted out, lingering questions have been answered. It’s not an embryonic mishmash of possible paths that my story is. Some of these paths might not make it to the final cut.

Of course, in the process of writing a story yourself, you typically have very little idea of where the story will go, at least initially, which is why Saunders is giving this class in his book – it can help to a meta-discussion about these questions as you write, especially after your first draft.

Nevertheless, the extract below is still a first draft, so I’m still learning about the characters in the story. I’m still becoming aware of their world, which in this case is confined to a remote house somewhere in Europe, although I can’t say for sure when and I don’t yet know what has brought them to be where they are. Nor do I know what genre of story this is. It has an oddness about it. There is a magical realism quality, perhaps dystopian, or perhaps it will be revealed later in the story that it is something about their isolation rather than the world around them that is odd. I have rough answers for these questions, but am not ready to set them in stone. It’s an exciting and sometimes (actually often in my case) frustrating process.

At the risk on conjuring some of the workshop anxieties and doubts, I’ve included the opening extract of my work-in-progress story, which is currently entitled Understanding. In a week or so (and hopefully within the next four years), I’ll consider some of the questions it raises and some of the decisions I’ve made during the writing process.

Hope you enjoy the extract and thanks for reading.

Working title: Understanding

His naked feet dangled inches above the water, coaxing them up from the deep. From an upstairs window she kept watch. Glancing at the woods. The barn. The bleached straggly grass which had once been a lawn. And then back at him at the end of the diving board. Her binoculars weighed a ton.

He peered down at the grey-green darkness she herself saw when it was her turn. The bottom invisible beneath the algae. With sudden violence – it always came sooner than she expected – he slapped the water with the back of the frying pan. The sound ricocheted off the trees that surrounded the garden. In the early days when he did this, she’d watch the birds scatter against the bluest skies. She knew them all by name. Goshawk. Buzzard. Swallow. Long-tailed tit. Today, apart from a distant squawk, there was nought.

He slapped and slapped. His thin, sinewy back glistening in the midday sun. It had been her idea to empty the fish tank into the pool after the winter rains. She hadn’t expected the carp to survive. When he’d killed enough – the fish floating on the surface of the green water, their bellies like bones – silence reigned over the clearing once again. He stared up at her briefly, checking she was paying attention. She pouted crossly and showed him the binoculars. The buckle on the leather strap dug into her neck. When he made a gun shape with his fingers, she lifted the rifle from the rug and held it up to the window with both hands.

Satisfied, he leant down and scooped up the dead fish with the frying pan, flinging each into the long grass by the pool. She scanned the treeline on both sides of the yard – nothing – before returning her gaze to her brother who wound up his arm as he tossed the pan deep into the grass before sliding along the board on his belly towards shore.

She looked out at the yard. There was cow parley and elderflower and sprigs of glass that looked like wheat but didn’t taste good and dandelions and a tree that produced the most delicious pears and a slime-green pool. In the breeze it all seemed to come to life, moving silently, hither and thither, hither and yon, yon and thither…she held these words in her warm mouth like yoke in an eggshell. She felt their roundness on her tongue before each was released with the shallowest aspiration. There was no one there to hear them, which was just as well for her brother hated her silly words. She had little time to recall when she first heard them – to remember which of her parents used them – because her brother had stopped dead in the middle of the board.

His gaze fixed on something in the forest.

A curve in the treeline meant she couldn’t see what he was looking at. Still, she raised the rifle and pointed it in the general direction of the forest path, her gluey tongue working its way along her top lip.

He followed the usual procedure, taking a deep gulp of air before sliding into the water, keeping his fingers curled over the edge of the board so he could sense any movement. If the board wobbled, he would know she had failed. He took a final gulp of air – his beard lingering on the water’s surface like eelgrass she’d read about in the National Geographic – its proper name was Zosteraceae – before pushing his head back under the water.

Shit, she said quietly, so her brother wouldn’t hear.

© Aaron Cox 2021