A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

Preachers have the best job. People pay us to exegete the world’s best story and then retell it the best way we can. We learn to do this in seminary, from listening to each other, and from conferences and homiletics books. We also benefit from those who don’t have us in mind.

I was inspired by George Saunders book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. George teaches writing at Syracuse University, and this book is like taking a writing class in his MFA program. Indeed, the book is a summary of one class. It walks us through seven Russian short stories, showing how to read them and applying insights to us who write, speak, and read for a living.

A baker’s dozen of takeaways:

1. “Always be escalating. That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation. A swath of prose earns its place in the story to the extent that it contributes to our sense that the story is (still) escalating” (153).

Tight stories return to a scene or theme, such as clothes hanging on a line or a leaf blowing in the wind, but they must always raise the stakes each time they do. In a good screenplay, each section must “(1) be entertaining in its own right and (2) advance the story in a non-trivial way” (42).

Here’s how I’m applying this in Sunday’s sermon on justification, sanctification, and glorification. The theme of the message is union with Christ, and I’ll use a variation of it for each one. Justification is the imputation of Christ, sanctification is putting on Christ, and glorification is being wedded to Christ. Each one builds on the former and becomes a bit more personal and thrilling, so by the end we’re all enraptured with Jesus (crossing my fingers).

2. When do you have a story? George says a piece of writing becomes a story when “something happens within it that changes the character forever…. So, we tell a certain story, starting at one time and ending at another, in order to frame that moment of change” (51).

3. Every good story needs drama, and every drama needs a problem. George writes, “A story with a problem is like a person with a problem: interesting” (84). Note to self: what is the problem this biblical text is trying to solve? Does my sermon reflect that?

4. What makes a good story? Good stories are efficient, with no wasted parts. At the end of a story, joke, or poem, our brain immediately assesses for efficiency. If there were no long irrelevant digressions, if “everything in the joke is there to serve the punch line,” it becomes “more powerful.” Bottom line: we need a reason for including each part of our sermon (85-86).

5. On finding our voice, George says he tells his students “how little choice we have about what kind of writer we’ll turn out to be.” “When we ‘find our voice,’ what’s really happening is that we’re choosing a voice from among the many voices we’re able to ‘do,’ and we’re choosing it because we’ve found that, of all the voices we contain, it’s the one, so far, that has proven itself to be the most energetic” (106).

George tells how he intended to be a realistic writer like Hemingway. But he couldn’t make that style of writing live. Then his wife laughed at his dark satire, and he realized that if he allowed himself to be entertaining, he could write more freely and powerfully. His voice might not be as majestic as Hemingway’s, but it was his and something he could steward and nourish until it grew (107-9).

This resonates with me. I wrote my first book, Heaven Is a Place on Earth, imagining that all of my professors were looking over my shoulder. I eliminated anything humorous, on purpose. My editor asked me to put some of myself back in. I did and haven’t looked back. There’s a loss of prestige in writing theology with humor, but it’s my voice, and it’s fun.

6. It’s important for writers (and I’d add preachers) to “take responsibility.” Have the courage to say what you mean and then “let it stand.” Mean to do it, then own what you did (109).

7. Every reader (and listener) has a meter on their forehead, with a needle poised between Positive and Negative. They will keep reading (and listening) if they stay interested, if the needle stays on the positive side. Examine each part of your story or sermon to see if the energy drops into boredom. If so, kill it.

8. Good writers (and preachers) respect their readers (and listeners). George writes, “A story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals. We keep reading because we continue to feel respected by the writer.” The audience is there. “All we have to do is engage her. To engage her, all we have to do is value her” (117).

9. Storytelling “is a two-part move. First, the writer creates an expectation…. Second, the writer responds to (or ‘uses’ or ‘exploits’ or ‘honors’) that set of expectations (134). A pattern is a good way to respond to this expectation, as long as the action always rises—see #1, “always be escalating” (e.g., note how in the Good Samaritan three different people walk past the wounded man).

George jokes with his students that if they ever get stuck into pages upon pages in which the action doesn’t rise, they will immediately become unstuck if they write, “Then something happened that changed everything forever” (138).

10. A short story (and I’d say a sermon or illustration) doesn’t include every detail in a rigorous accounting. Rather it selects those details it wants to highlight. Its message dictates what to include and what to omit (140).

11. A good story excels at causality. One thing is perceived to have caused something else. No causality, no meaning (147). Causality “is the hardest thing to learn. It doesn’t come naturally, not to most of us. But that’s really all a story is: a series of things that happen in sequence, in which we can discern a pattern of causality” (226).

“Causality is to the writer what melody is to the songwriter: a superpower that the audience feels as the crux of the matter; the thing the audience actually shows up for; the hardest thing to do; that which distinguishes the competent practitioner from the extraordinary one” (227).

12. Tied to “always be escalating” is this tip: “refuse to repeat beats. Once a story has moved forward, through some fundamental change in the character’s condition, we don’t get to enact that change again. And we don’t get to stay there, elaborating on that state—not, as in this case, for two full pages” (153).

“In a good story, the writer makes energy in a beat, then transfers this energy cleanly to the next one…. The preferred, most efficient, highest-order form of energy transfer…is for a beat to cause the next beat, especially if that next beat is felt as essential, i.e., as an escalation” (228).

13. George mentions how Tolstoy wrote fiction that consisted almost entirely of “facts.” He describes his characters’ thoughts “succinctly and precisely, using simple objective sentences that seem factual in their syntax and modesty of assertion” (218).

“A fact draws us in” (218). Even if we know the author is making up the story, a confidently stated fact strikes us as true. Especially if it “agrees with our sense of how the world works. It gives us a thrill, and this thrill-at-truth keeps us reading” (219).

George has lots more tips, and a bit of profane language and “the hero-lies-in-you” bromides (this is not a Christian book), but this would make excellent summer reading for preachers, storytellers, and readers. Lots here to inspire and use!






2 responses to “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain”

  1. Dr. Mike,

    Thtat seems like a lot of work. I’ll just use ChatGPT to write my Bible lessons (biblegpt.org)

    This is a response to “Will the Cleveland Browns win the Super Bowl?”

    The Bible does not specifically address the question of whether or not the Cleveland Browns will make it to the Super Bowl. However, the Bible does provide us with guidance on how to approach any situation. In the book of Proverbs, it says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). We are also instructed to seek God’s wisdom and guidance in all matters (James 1:5). In the book of Philippians, it says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).

    If this is helpful, please consider contributing any amount to help me keep this running for free!

    Proverbs 3:5-6
    Trust in Yahweh with all your heart, and don’t lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.

    James 1:5
    But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach; and it will be given to him.

    Philippians 4:6
    In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.

  2. Being a writer too, this article is very helpful. Thanks, Mike!

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