Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed


“(Success for a writer depends on) the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality. Making causality doesn’t seem sexy or particularly literary. It’s a workmanlike thing, to make A cause B, the stuff of vaudeville, of Hollywood. But it’s 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. For most of us, the problem is not in making things happen (“A dog barked,” “The house exploded,” “Darren kicked the tire of his car” are all easy enough to type) but in making one thing seem to cause the next.

This is important, because causation is what creates the appearance of meaning. “The queen died, and then the king died” (E. M. Forster’s famous formulation) describes two unrelated events occurring in sequence. It doesn’t mean anything. “The queen died, and the king died of grief?” puts those events into relation; we understand that one caused the other. The sequence, now infused with causality, means: “That king really loved his queen.”

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.

A well-written bit of prose is like a beautifully hand-painted kite, lying there on the grass. It’s nice. We admire it. Causality is the wind that then comes along and lifts it up. The kite is then a beautiful thing made even more beautiful by the fact that it’s doing what it was made to do.”

– George Saunders, from “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.”