I recently finished George Saunders’ latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. In it, he takes seven short stories by famous Russian authors and talks about what works in them—what’s going on at a deeper level than a cursory read might reveal and why he can’t stop reading them himself. He intersperses this with discussions of his realizations as a human being and a writer.
I loved it, but it’s taken me a little while to put my finger on why, and now that I have, my mind is zinging with connections that would take weeks, or months perhaps, to synthesize. But brevity must reign here in blogland, I know, so I’ll focus my enthusiasms accordingly, as best I can.
But first, a sweeping statement from yours truly:
Saunders’ writing in this book is insightful, clever and funny. He has a great ability to peel open the stories he’s chosen in a way that is meaningful to everyday life, and perhaps more importantly, to the everyday life of our hearts. This isn’t a text on how to read, or even how to write: it’s an observation of how we humans engage with art in general, why we need it in the first place, and how it’s profound enough, even through the offices of our bungling minds and hearts, to teach us about who we are.
That said, Saunders and I achieved our greatest resonance in his discussions of the creative process itself. There are things being said here I want to scream from the mountaintop. One in particular is that great art cannot be produced without accessing the spontaneous knowing that is embodied by our intuition and feeling(s). He explains this by example, in typical Saunders fashion:
A guy (Stan) constructs a model railroad town in his basement. Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices that he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture—the hobo seems to be gazing back at the town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. (Oh, why can’t they be together? If only ‘Little Jack’ would just go home. To his wife. To ‘Linda.’)
What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so—in a split second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal ‘Yes.’
He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.
In my view, all art begins in that instant of intuitive preference. (emphasis added)
The creative process for Saunders is one of listening to this intuitive preference over and over and over again, through rain, hail, sleet or snow, until the final product is satisfactory. It sounds simple, but it’s not. This is because it cannot be contrived, it must unfold spontaneously. Art requires “…some moment-to-moment responsiveness to what [is] actually happening.”
About his process, he writes, “I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with P on this side (‘Positive’) and an N on that side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? If it drops into the N zone, admit it. And then, instantaneously, a fix might present itself—a cut, a rearrangement, an addition. There’s not an intellectual or analytical component to this: it’s more of an impulse, one that results in a feeling of ‘Ah, yes, that’s better.’ It’s akin to that hobo adjustment, above: by instinct, in that moment.”
Is this just Saunders’ method, though? Or something more universal? I very much think the latter. One of the greatest descriptions of this process I’ve ever encountered comes from the writing of Christopher Alexander. His four-book series The Nature of Order is a remarkable work: he begins with discussion of what makes any structure or artifact “living”—beautiful, whole, nurturing, authentic—and then turns to the processes (both external and internal) that are capable of extending this life into the world. Like Saunders, he feels this can only be accomplished when we are guided by feeling itself:
We come now, to the most important and most profound aspect of living process. I believe it is the deepest issue in this book. I believe it is the most enlightening and appealing. Yet it may also prove, intellectually, to be the most controversial and the most difficult to accept.
The issue has to do with feeling.
I assert, simply, that all living process hinges on the production of deep feeling. And I assert that this one idea encapsulates all the other ideas, and covers all the other aspects of living process. It may also be said that this vision of living process is, or if true may turn out to be, in the end, of the greatest importance for the future of humankind.
Feeling is a difficult word, as Alexander acknowledges. He goes on to say, in a later passage, “The word ‘feeling’ has been contaminated. It is confused with emotions—with feelings (in the plural) such as wonder, sadness, anger—which confuse rather than help because they make us ask ourselves, which kind of feeling should I follow? The feeling I am talking about is unitary. It is feeling in the singular, which comes from the whole. It arises in us, but it originates in the wholeness which is actually there. The process of respecting and extending and creating the whole, and the process of using feeling, are one and the same. Real feeling, true feeling, is the experience of the whole.”
Lastly—and I know I’m packing in the quotes here—Alexander has this to say about the recursive nature of the process by which this feeling is made manifest in a work: “You know the feeling which the thing will have. But you do not yet know the form. In fact, you keep having to change the form, because as the work unfolds, you find out many, many details which have the wrong feeling, which do not function, in response to the whole, as you thought they would. Because you keep the feeling constant, you have to change the form.”
Is Alexander not describing the selfsame process as Saunders did above? I believe he is. For Saunders, art involves “some moment-to-moment responsiveness to what [is] actually happening.” Such a process cannot be arbitrary, planned or formulaic. This is the process of listening to our heart as it speaks to us—instantaneously, unerringly, yet somehow confoundingly—about whether or not a choice we’ve made is consonant with the whole that is coming into being. This doesn’t mean that reason doesn’t enter into it, but reason cannot viscerally sense the whole or provide access to the field of resonant feeling that is the whole coming into being.
Alexander quite agrees.
Each of these geniuses is pointing us in a common direction: we don’t need more facts, better technologies, or more expertise; we need the unique responses to wholeness that each of us alone can offer to the world around us. Because in truth this isn’t just about constructing buildings or writing novels, it’s about constructing the network of relationships on which a living, healthy, and thriving world community depends. We will do this not by planning or designing our way to it, but by creating it, through a myriad of incremental, stepwise transformations—thoughts, words and actions—that enhance our feeling of the whole and extend its life into the world.