One summer, while George Saunders was working long days in the searing oil fields of Texas, he had something like an epiphany. Parked in an RV in his parents’ driveway in Amarillo, Saunders spent evenings reading The Grapes of Wrath. In the Okies, he saw a reflection of his work crew, which included a Vietnam vet and recently released convict. 

“We too were the malformed detritus of capitalism,” he writes, “the necessary costs of doing business. In short Steinbeck was writing about life as I saw it.” In his own fiction, Saunders rarely writes about life as we see it. His worlds are more like funhouse mirrors of our own. But, like Steinbeck, the celebrated author has placed life’s important questions at the heart of his work. 

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders’s new book, is a version of his short story class at Syracuse University, which closely studies works by four Russian authors, Chekov, Tolstoy, Gogol and Turgenev. But what makes A Swim more than a “tricks of the trade” book for aspiring writers is Saunders’s passionate case for literature’s power to make us better people, more empathetic and kind. 

“They changed you when you read them, made the world seem to be telling a different, more interesting story,” he writes, “a story in which you might play a meaningful part, and in which you had responsibilities.” 

Saunders, who practices in the Nyingma school of Buddhism, has written 12 books, including Lincoln in the Bardo, a bestselling novel that won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for best work of fiction in English. In a recent email exchange with Tricycle, the author opened up about his work, what he thinks Buddhism can offer at a time of profound global anxiety, and how he quiets his own monkey mind. 

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain has many lines that sound “Buddhish,” which made me wonder how your practice has influenced how you read and write. I realize this might be impossible to answer, but would you speak a bit about the ways in which you do see your practice influencing your work? I think I was performing a species of meditation long before I knew what that was, while I was writing. Just that experience of concentrating on a piece of prose in what I might call an athletic stance—hearing it quickly in my head, liking it or not, adjusting it at-speed, without much theorizing or conceptualizing—just a series of split-second decisions, done out a certain kind of what we might call “preferring joy.” In that state, I can now observe, rumination goes quiet(er). So, when I finally started trying to meditate, I felt at home there. The states aren’t identical but are, I think, related. And I’ve come to understand, about myself, that being in that state (writing) for a few hours every day is good for me. That period of relative quiet-mindedness where, because I’m concentrating on the prose, my monkey mind gets a little stifled, makes me happier for the rest of the day. 

The advice to readers to watch how their minds react to fiction reminded me very much of meditation. Is that intentional? Yes, for sure. We might think of every moment of life as a moment of reading: something presents to us (a person, a paragraph) and we have a visceral and immediate reaction. We just do. What do we do with that reaction? I’d say the first thing is to let it be. Bless it or validate it or however you want to say it. That reaction was real, so give it its due. (We are reading a story and find ourselves suddenly moved, or confused, or resistant, or bored. That reaction was real. And is therefore valid, and is what the writer now has to work with.) So that seems “meditative” to me. In that first moment we might feel a tendency to doubt that reaction (it’s not literary enough, or we can’t think of a way to express it that doesn’t feel dumb, or whatever). And then we start falsifying (inventing responses that sound better but have little or nothing to do with our initial reaction). And we’re in trouble. (And we’re in trouble at such a moment in life, when we try to override or deny an authentic reaction.)

So, “criticism” might be understood as the process of having and trusting that initial reaction and then trying to articulate it without falsifying it. (Easier said than done, for sure.)

Would it be fair to say that you think every good story has a moral, however small or subtle? Well, yes, I think so, in the sense that a story starts with a particular human being and then takes her through something. If it’s a good story, what she goes through matters to us; we feel ourselves somewhat occupying her consciousness. Or we might find that, early in the story, we project about her in a certain way and the story sort of shows us the deficiency of that initial projection. So, some way or another, a good story is out to alter us—which can feel like we are being morally adjusted, I guess. That’s all true enough but in the writing of a story, in my experience, it’s best to forget all that and just try to get the words on the page to compel the reader to keep going. Then, all of the above will take care of itself; it will happen as a natural consequence of your effort to keep the reader reading.

You speak of writing as a sacrament, something holy. What gives it this power? What I mean by this is just that, when we write a story or poem over many months, coming at it again and again, in different mindsets, the person who “is writing” at the end, in that final draft (that is, the person who is felt by the reader as having written the story) will tend to present to the reader a more nuanced, compassionate person than the one the reader would have felt in the first draft. This is a result of the thousands of decisions made (in revision) along the way. This tells us that that wiser person was “there” within us all along—that is, revision has given us access to that better awareness. 

Similarly, when reading, as that early projection mentioned above gets deepened and corrected, this reminds us that we’re capable of that more advanced or tenderhearted or nuanced understanding. 

Now, when I was a Catholic kid, I’d come out of Mass in a “better” state: more alert to things, more alert to my own presence here, resolving to stay in that state, be kinder and more Christ-like, etc. That state never lasted for long. But the purpose of a sacrament, we might say, is to periodically remind (banal, habituated, everyday) us that that’s not all we are—we have access to higher registers (of presence and awareness and love and so on). Even just to be reminded of that now and thus then, and have our aspirations nudged, is a good thing, I think.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders | Penguin Random House

You compare your book (and other guides for aspiring writers) to a finger pointing to the moon, with the moon being a state of attention and readiness to write. Are there rituals or other strategies you use to get yourself into that state? Not really, to be honest. At this point, it’s mostly just taking a little breath and going, like, “Time to write now.” And as soon as I start scanning the lines my mind kind of naturally goes into (that day’s version of) that state. I think that’s a result of having done this for so long. 

But this question about ritual is interesting. In the world of writing and writing advice, it’s funny how many things boil down to the notion that the writer has to find her own way. All good questions about writing ultimately have that answer. If someone says, “How do you know when your story is done?” the correct, annoying, Yoda-like answer would be, “Yes, exactly.” That is: “How do you know, when your story is done? What has your experience been, regarding this?” A book like the one I’ve just written is really just a collection of statements that amount to, “How about this? Does this help? To think of it this way? Does this metaphor feel familiar, from your own practice, i.e., like something you’ve felt? Do you find yourself really repelled by this advice, or excited by it? If so, that might be worth noting.”

I once read one of your short story collections to try to make myself a little nicer before I visited my in-laws. It worked! But then I went back to being a jerk. So I guess my question is, how do we (or just I) make literature’s halo linger? Maybe you can make a tiny book I can keep in my pocket? Ha! I love that story. It occurs to me that this question might be related to the one above, about the sacramental. For me, the stories I love, and the states they’ve put me in, are a sort of a reference library of…well, of other ways I have been. The memories of those other states say a lovely thing to me, which is: “This guy you are right now—ego-dominated, anxious, having, mostly, thoughts about his career, victory-minded—well, he’s just one of the many possible Georges. Take heart! You have been otherwise and can be otherwise again.” And in there, also, are other memories, of times when, for other reasons (meditation retreats, tragedies, a sudden immersion in something beautiful, a difficult goodbye at an airport), I was…otherwise. So, that reference library of Previous and Better Selves We Have, Briefly, Been, serves an aspirational purpose, I guess.

And, can I just say—a person who would purposely read a story to attempt to make herself nicer before a social engagement is….well, in the dictionary, under Not Jerk, that would be the entry.

This has been a pretty tough time in America. How have you gotten through it? Do you think Buddhists might have anything unique to offer the country in its hour of deep need? For me, what Buddhism teaches us is the ability to say something like, “Aha, so this is how it sometimes is.” We have an idea of how things usually are, but that’s just a projection, based on the usual limited data that this arrangement of mind and body allows. So, since the universe doesn’t particularly care that our receiving mechanism is small and Darwinian and sweetly pathetic, it keeps being its sometimes harsh, sometimes amenable, unruly self. And every now and then, the gap between “the way things really are” and “the way they seem to us” becomes glaringly obvious. That’s happened now, across the world, I’d say. And it’s terrible. The pain and anxiety and discomfort we feel at such a moment is a measure of the severity of the gap. (I suppose that if we really, in our bodies, understood and believed that we are impermanent and that everything is conditional and that our self-loyalty is delusional, and so on, there would be no pain.) 

But this gap is what we are feeling when someone we love dies, or we get unexpectedly fired, or when, walking into a fancy party, having a thought of how amazing it is that we, humble we, find ourselves in such an exalted position, we trip and fall down, careening into the waiter carrying the little shrimp niblets, and he, poor fellow, flies right into the pool and, not only that, it’s his birthday, his worst birthday ever, thanks to us. In other words: we did not see that coming. So often, we do not see what’s coming. But that’s not, really, the fault of the universe.

So, I think what Buddhism can teach us is that things are a certain way and we could get better at knowing how they are, and, in that way, minimize the extent to which we are full of it, i.e., delusional. But that’s an idea. The tricky part for me—someone who is pretty good at cranking out ideas and making them sound good—has been getting the ideas down into my actual body and experience—finding the time and resolve to do that hard work. Instead I keep writing books, which I hope is part of that task. But, I’m finding, it’s not sufficient. The real way of accomplishing that has been left for us by previous generations of teachers. 

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