First and foremost a huge thank you to Damyanti Biswas for recommending this beautiful book to me. Once or twice I have reached out to her for writing advice and she remembered that, so thank you for keeping me in mind.
I haven’t read many books on writing, in fact, I can count them on the fingers of my one hand. Not because I don’t like them but because there is too much information out there and half of it is repetitive. But this book, it’s different, trust me. It comes from a long experience of being a writer and a professor of Creative Writing.
George Saunders gives you a sneak peek of his classroom at Syracuse in this book. Here through the stalwarts of Russian literature Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, and Turgenev, and their stories. The book has seven stories from these great writers and each story has been deciphered by Saunders for you, both as a writer and an attentive reader. But at the crux of it is more like listening to a great lecture by a passionate reader who has spent decades understanding these masters of storytelling. You might have read these stories before but somehow when you read Saunders’s assessment of these stories, you sometimes nod your head in agreement, and other times you “Oh!” with wonderment. But for me the highlight of the book was the “Afterthoughts”, after each assessment, Saunders shares his thoughts regarding the story more as a person rather than a professor, and here is where the goldmine is.
The major themes that the book covers are what is storytelling, what is the base of a story, what as a writer you should be looking out for when writing, how to edit your own story, and to what level. But it also talks about our inner instincts as a writer, how there is no story until we start writing it and how the story becomes its own person, and how it comes alive when you begin writing. The book is more concentrated on the art of short stories where you don’t have a framework like a novel, you have an idea or thought which turns into a story. I think all the writers will agree that most of the time your story ends up being far too different from their initial idea of it. And that’s the beauty of writing, it not only evolves your story but it also evolves you as a person.
The book ends with a chapter “We End” where George modestly talks about why fiction exists and why we write it but most importantly why we read it. Because our journey of being a reader started way much before being a writer. As Saunder said “So, if something in this book lit you up, that wasn’t me “teaching you something,” that was you remembering or recognizing something that I was, let’s say, “validating.” If something, uh, anti—lit you up? That feeling of disagreeing with me was your artistic will asserting itself.” I have too many highlights from the book, don’t worry I will not share all those here, but if you want to read those, check my Goodreads 😉 But I would like to end the post with one quote that I really liked as a student of writing.
“Randall Jarrell said about stories holds true for the writers of stories: they “don’t want to know, don’t want to care, they just want to do as they please.” It really is true: doing what you please (i.e., what pleases you), with energy, will lead you to everything—to your particular obsessions and the ways in which you’ll indulge them, to your particular challenges and the forms in which they’ll convert into beauty, to your particular obstructions and your highly individualized obstruction breakers. We can’t know what our writing problems will be until we write our way into them, and then we can only write our way out.”
PS: Highly recommended for budding writers and for readers who want to delve deep into the art of storytelling, or those who want to hone their skills on writing better book reviews.
PPS: The book has some writing exercises at the end, though I haven’t done mine yet but I am hoping they are helpful.