Welcome to Story Club...
...with George Saunders
Hello. I’m George Saunders, a writer, and a professor in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.
In my most recent book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, I explored seven short stories by four of the great Russian masters (Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol, and Tolstoy). A lot was going on in the world as I wrote it, but working on it always made me feel happy and stable. Focusing all of my energy on the stories (reading them closely enough to write about them, revising and revising my essays, obsessing over the meaning of a paragraph or the nuances of various translations) felt immersive and stimulating – the very opposite of burying my head in the sand. I’d come flying/stumbling down at the end of the day from a little writing shed I have up on the hillside in Corralitos, California, feeling, not that I’d “taken a break from” the current difficulties, but that I’d, well, girded up my loins for a deeper, less fearful engagement with the world.
Once the book came out, I started getting these incredible letters from readers. Some praise, yes, sure, but not all praise. What was interesting about these letters was that they were less “I loved it/I hated it” and more “Hey, I want to discuss this further” – people wanting to offer their take on Chekhov’s Gooseberries, or chime in on the strange beauty of Gogol’s The Nose, or solve the beautiful enigma at the heart of Tolstoy’s Alyosha the Pot. Other readers wrote to let me know that the book had helped them through a difficult period or helped them overcome a resistance to the form or had reawakened their love for it.
These were really nice letters to get – by far the most passionate (grateful, engaged, urgent) response to my work I’d ever received, and they spoke to the existence of a community of people who love the short story, people who don’t see stories as separate from their real life, but essential to it.
Hence, this newsletter, Story Club.
The plan is to pick up where that book left off, widening beyond the Russians into stories from other times and traditions. I see us working together on some essential questions:
Why do certain stories compel us to finish them?
How can something entirely made-up change the way we think and feel about the real world?
What can we learn about the mind by watching it read and process a story?
Increasingly, creative writing is understood to be a sort of adorable, niche venture, relegated, mostly to MFA programs. But, in my view, this underestimates the essential importance of storytelling to a culture.
At present, we seem to be suffering from a widespread failure of literary imagination. We have become worse at imagining the experiences of other people, less inclined to credit these experiences as being as valid and real as our own. Why is this? In part, I think, because of the methods by, and pace at which, we acquire our stories. After all, everything is a story: every thought, every belief, every memory (every love, every bias). And every story is constructed by a certain projective quality of the mind. How do we know things about the world? The mind makes scale models, and we test them out. So, the quality of our scale-model-maker determines the relative accuracy of the resulting model which, in turn, determines how close to the truth we end up living. That is: how we tell and receive stories is central to how we think, which, in turn, determines how well (how lovingly, how fully) we live.
So How Does Story Club Work?
I want this experience to be truly interactive, and challenging, and rigorous. We’ll be doing guided, page-at-a-time readings (as I did with Chekhov’s “In the Cart,” in (A Swim in a Pond in the Rain).
I’ll also be offering writing exercises and prompts, and some examples of certain editing moves, from the vaults (i.e., my old files), and there’ll be opportunities for subscribers to pose questions about craft and the writing life.
I want to stress that, although I hope this will look and feel like a class, it isn’t - you can’t fail, or disappoint, or do it wrong, or get a bad grade. What you can do, is drop in whenever you like, with whatever intention you might have. I will try to design the posts so that they are relatively self-contained. If you’ve come in late, no need to go back to the beginning and “catch up.” Just leap in.
When Does Story Club Happen?
Story Club will come out twice a week. I’ll publish on Thursdays and Sundays. Or that’s the plan, anyway.
How Much Is It Going to Cost Me?
For the first few months or so, everything will be free, after which, for reasons of simple commerce, the more challenging and labor-intensive parts will be gently moved behind (wait for it) “the paywall.” I’ll let you know when that’s about to happen and will very much appreciate you joining me back there, where I hope you’ll be saying, “Crikey, I’m getting all of this sage writing advice, and these pictures of his pets, for only $6 a month! That Saunders is so sweetly naïve about the ways of the marketplace.”
How Can I Be in Touch?
For certain subscriber posts, the comments function will be open, and I’ll be reading your responses to these regularly and responding, as I can, both within the comments and in separate “Q&A”-style posts. Your input is going to be essential in helping me shape the experience. As I do in my teaching at Syracuse, I’ll be tailoring the “syllabus” along the way, to the audience’s needs and make it more helpful. We’re also considering setting up an external drive where you’ll be able to post your creative responses to the exercises and prompts. Stay tuned about this – we may be needing some volunteers to help facilitate.
What Are We Trying to Do Here?
Substack, I’m hoping, will offer me the best parts of social media (engagement with readers, a place to work through ideas) without the quick opining/anonymity-related snark that tends to plague Twitter, et al. (We are, after all, a self-selected community here; an artistic “tribe,” as my friend Mary Karr calls it, brought into mutual respect by our love for the form).
I’m hoping that, by working together like this, some magical things will happen:
We’ll begin to think about sentences differently – become more alert to them, begin to see them as the place where originality begins in fiction.
We’ll gain a new trust in our abilities as readers – will increasingly recognize that our reactions to a work of art are all that we have to work with (they are, really, the bedrock of criticism) and we’ll get better at detecting and honoring our “micro-opinions” (which we will then bring into the shaping of our own work).
We’ll find that these immersions in the story will start overflowing into real life – we’ll find the seeds of short stories all around us and may also find the essential questions and struggles of our real lives showing up in the stories we read, essentialized and refined.
We’ll find ourselves forming a tight and mutually supportive community.
Thanks for coming along on the ride.