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Advice from a Master

Posted on Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 1:31 PM

How to write like Chekhov.

By Peter P. Jacobi

This month, I defer to Chekhov. He's not a bad choice for any of us to emulate.

On a previous occasion, I've passed along one of his wisdoms: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." It's the old show-versus-tell argument but stated with such clarity, like a combination of example and definition, all in one. He's not just telling us what to do but also showing us how to get it done.

Cut Unnecessary Details

Let's take another sampling from this master story teller and shaper of torn, yet recognizable, souls. "If, in the first chapter," he advises, "you say there is a gun hanging on the wall, you should make quite sure that it is going to be used further on in the story." Keep out extraneous material; that's what he's alerting us to do. We're not to burden our pieces with unnecessary details, with stuff that just gets in the way and ends up overwhelming (or underwhelming) the reader. We're to keep our eyes on the main event: getting our selected point across distinctly and succinctly.

Rethink Your Beginning and Ending

Here's one more recommendation from the sage Anton Chekhov: "My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying ... One must ruthlessly suppress everything that is not concerned with the subject." Well, again, he's telling us to get rid of excess, but he's also suggesting that we rethink those two critical elements in our story, the lead and the conclusion. Have we really come up with the strongest, most enticing yet also honest opening, we should ask ourselves. What about that ending: is it the best summary? Is it the best way to help the reader remember what we've tried to say?

My focus on Chekhov results from reading a newly-issued book, How To Write Like Chekhov, Advice and Inspiration Straight from His Own Letters and Work (Da Capo Press), edited and introduced by a pair of scholars, Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek. Brunello is a professor of social history at the University of Venice. Lencek is professor of Russian and the humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon; she did double duty, serving also as translator.

The two editors have taken the letters of Chekhov that speak of his philosophy about writing and the methods he used to accomplish it. That's been done before, meaning it's not original but, because Chekhov has so much he can tell us, remains valuable. In addition, however, Brunello and Lencek have cast a spotlight on a particular work of the Russian genius, a nonfiction work, The Island of Sakhalin, written after Chekhov traveled to a Russian penal colony there. Chekhov, you may remember, was a trained doctor who then chose literature for his career.

The Sakhalin section reveals how Chekhov put it together, from the
pre-journey research, through the travel and the field research he did while on the island, to the writing and his admonition to self that he best write sooner than later while his "impressions are still fresh."

Write Like a Painter

He urges that a writer should emulate a painter. "If a landscape painter were to visit Sakhalin," he says, "I would recommend he make an excursion to Arkovo valley. In addition to its beautiful location, this spot is so unusually rich in color that it is hard to describe without resorting to that stale simile of the multicolored carpet or kaleidoscope. Consider the lush, verdant growth of giant burdocks glistening from the recent rain; beyond them, in a tiny plot no more than twenty-one feet wide, rye is turning green, and beyond that lies a patch of barley, and then burdocks again, and then another patch filled with oats, and then a row of potatoes and two stunted sunflowers with drooping heads, and then a wedge of rich green hemp, and, here and there, umbrella plants thrust their bracts proudly like the arms of candlelabra, and crimson patches of poppies. On the road, you pass peasant women wrapped in big burdock leaves to keep off the rain and looking like huge green beetles."

How much he tells us, employing simplicity of language. The description is spare, objective, and yet brimming with the sort of information that brings one close. So, the lessons in How To Write Like Chekhov come in the forms both of counsel and example.

Excellent Advice

Throughout this volume, one discovers gems first delivered to colleagues and friends and advice-seekers in letters:

"Brevity is the sister of talent."

"A strange thing has happened: I have developed a mania for brevity. No matter what I read -- my own or others' writing -- everything strikes me as too long."

"My job demands only one thing of me: to be talented, that is, to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant evidence; to illuminate characters, and to speak in their language."

"Before it reaches the page, every sentence must spend two days in the brain, lying perfectly still and putting on weight."

"One must never lie. Art has this great specification: it simply does not tolerate falsehood. One can lie in love, politics, and medicine; one can mislead the public or even God, but there is absolutely no lying in art."

"In your story, one can feel the place, smell the bagels."

"Commonplaces such as, 'The setting sun bathing in the waves of the darkening sea poured out a flood of crimson gold' and, 'The swallows skimming the surface of the water chirped joyously' -- such commonplaces should be eliminated. In describing nature, focus on minute details and group them in such a way that when the reader will have finished reading, he will be able to close his eyes and see a complete picture. You can produce the impression of a moonlit night, for example, by writing that the broken bottle glass twinkled like stars on the milldam..."

"The more emotionally charged a situation, the more emotional restraint one must use in writing, and then the result will be emotionally powerful. There is no need for laying it on thick."

Just go through the above statements again. Study them. They are self-explanatory. Reach your own conclusions. Learn from the lessons imparted. They alone constitute a short course on writing. But the book holds countless more points and, from start to finish, samples of Chekhov's brilliantly subdued and provocative style.

He writes a friend: "I think going barefoot must be better than wearing cheap boots. You cannot imagine my suffering! Now and then, I crawl out of my carriage, get down on the wet ground, and pull off my boots to give my heels a break. A rare pleasure in the freezing cold! I ended up buying felt boots in Ishim and wore them until they fell apart from the damp and the mud ... We set off ... Mud, rain, a piercing cold wind ... and felt boots on my feet. Do you know what felt boots are like when they are wet? Gelatin."

As editor or writer, the book is worth your time.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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