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.
When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and
want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat
colder that seems to give a kind of background to
another's grief, against which it stands out more clearly.
Whereas in your story the characters cry and you sigh.
Yes, be more cold. ... The more objective you are, the
stronger will be the impression you make. To Lydia Avilova,
March 19, 1892 & April 29, 1892
I will begin with what in my opinion is your lack of restraint.
You are like a spectator in a
theatre who expresses his enthusiasm so unrestrainedly that he
prevents himself and others from hearing. That lack of restraint is
particularly noticeable in the descriptions of nature with which you
interrupt dialogues; when one reads them, these descriptions, one
wishes they were more compact, shorter, say two or three lines. To
Maxim Gorky, December 3, 1898
Another piece of advice: when you read proof
cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.
You have so many modifiers that the reader has trouble
understanding and gets worn out.
is comprehensible when I write: "The man sat on the
grass," because it is clear and does not detain one's
attention. On the other hand, it is difficult to figure out and
hard on the brain if I write: "The tall, narrow-chested man
of medium height and with a red beard sat down on the
green grass that had already been trampled down by the
pedestrians, sat down silently, looking around timidly and
fearfully." The brain can't grasp all that at once, and art
must be grasped at once, instantaneously.
And then one other thing. You are lyrical by nature, the timber of your
soul is soft. If you were a composer you would avoid writing
marches. It is unnatural for your talent to curse, shout, taunt, denounce
with rage. Therefore, you'll understand if I advise you, in proofreading,
to eliminate the "sons of bitches," "curs," and "flea-bitten mutts" that
here and there on the pages of Life. To Maxim Gorky, September
Critics are like horse-flies which hinder the horses in their
ploughing of the soil. The muscles of the horse are as taut as
fiddle-strings, and suddenly a horse-fly alights on its croup,
buzzing and stinging. The horse's skin quivers, it waves its tail.
What is the fly buzzing about? It probably doesn't know itself.
It simply has a restless nature and wants to make itself felt "I'm
alive, too, you know!" it seems to say. "Look, I know how to buzz,
there's nothing I can't buzz about!"
I've been reading reviews of my stories for twenty-five
years, and can't remember a single useful point in any of
them, or the slightest good advice. The only reviewer who
ever made an impression on me was Skabichevsky, who
prophesied that I would die drunk in the bottom of a
ditch. Quoted by Maxim Gorky in
"Anton Chekhov," On Literature
If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.
... only he is an emancipated thinker who is not afraid to write foolish
But if you had asked him what his
work was, he would look candidly and
openly at you with his large bright
eyes through his gold pincenez, and
would answer in a soft, velvety, lisping
baritone: "My work is literature." "Excellent People"
I think descriptions of nature should be very short and always be
à propos. Commonplaces like "The setting sun, sinking into the
waves of the darkening sea, cast its purple gold rays, etc,"
flitting over the surface of the water, twittered gaily" eliminate
such commonplaces. You have to choose small details in
describing nature, grouping them in such a way that if you close your
eyes after reading it you can picture the whole thing. For example,
you'll get a picture of a moonlit night if you write that on the
dam of the mill a piece of broken bottle flashed like a bright star
and the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled by like a ball, etc. ... In
the realm of psychology you also need details. God preserve
you from commonplaces. Best of all, shun all descriptions of the
characters' spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge
clearly from their actions. Don't try for too many characters. The
center of gravity should reside in two: he and she. To AP Chekhov,
May 10, 1886
A writer is not a confectioner, a cosmetic dealer, or an entertainer.
He is a man who has signed a
contract with his conscience and his sense of duty.
I long to embrace, to include in my own short life, all that is accessible
to man. I long to speak, to read, to wield a hammer in a
great factory, to keep
watch at sea, to plow. I want to be walking along the
Nevsky Prospect, or
in the open fields, or on the ocean wherever my
imagination ranges. Anton Chekhov
When you fashion a story you necessarily concern yourself with its limits:
slew of main and secondary characters you choose only one the wife or the
husband place him against the background and describe him alone and
therefore also emphasize him, while you scatter the others in the
background like small change, and you get something like the night sky:
a single large moon and a slew of very small stars. But the moon
doesn't turn out right because you can see it only when the other
stars are visible too, but the stars aren't set off. So I turn out a sort
of patchwork quilt rather than literature. What can I do? I simply
don't know. I will simply depend on all-healing time. To
Alexei Suvorin, October 27, 1888
You are right in demanding that an artist approach his
work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts:
the solution of a problem and the correct formulation
of a problem. Only the second is required of the
artist. To Alexei Suvorin, October 27, 1888
It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only
fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything. The
stupider they are, the wider they conceive their horizons to be. And if an
artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees this
itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a
step forward. To Alexei Suvorin, May 30, 1888
I write the beginning calmly and don't hold
myself back, but by the middle I start feeling
uneasy and apprehensive
that the story will come out too long. I have to
keep in mind that the
Northern Herald is low in funds and that
I am one of its more expensive
contributors. That's why my beginning always
seems as promising as
if I'd started a novel, the middle is crumpled together
and timid, and
the end is all fireworks, like the end of a brief sketch.
Whether you like
it or not, the first thing you have to worry about when
you're working up a story is its framework.
From your mass of heroes and semi-heroes,
you choose one individual, a wife or a husband,
place him against the
background, and portray only that person and
emphasize only him. The
others you scatter in the background like so
much small change. The
result is something like the firmament: one large
moon surrounded by
a mass of tiny stars. But the moon doesn't work,
because it can only be
understood once the other stars are understandable,
and the stars are
not sufficiently delineated. So instead of literature
I get a patchwork
quilt. What can I do? I don't know. I have no idea.
I'll just have to trust to all-healing time. To Alexei
Suvorin, October 22, 1888
One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without
making a mistake.
My business is to be talented, that is, to be capable of selecting the
important moments from the trivial
ones. ... It's about time for writers particularly those who are
artists to recognize that in this
world you cannot figure out everything. Just have a writer who the crowds
trust be courageous enough
and declare that he does not understand everything, and that lone will
represent a major contribution to
the way people think, a long leap forward.
I still lack a political, religious and philosophical
world view I change it every month and so I'll have
to limit myself to descriptions of how my heroes love,
marry, give birth, die, and how they speak. To Dmitry
Grigorovich, October 9, 1888
The people I am afraid of are the ones
who look for tendentiousness between the lines and are determined
to see me as either liberal or conservative. I am neither liberal,
nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, nor
indifferentist. I would like to be a free artist and nothing
else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be
one. To Alexei Pleshcheyev, October 4, 1888
One has to write what one sees, what one feels, truthfully, sincerely. I
am often asked what it was that I was wanting to say in this or that
story. To these questions I never have any answer. There is nothing I want
to say. My concern is to write, not to teach! And I can write about
anything you like. ... Tell me to write about this bottle, and I will give you a story entitled "The Bottle."
Living truthful images generate thought, but thought cannot create an image.
In my opinion
it is not the writer's job to solve such problems as God,
his job is merely to record who, under what conditions,
said or thought
what about God or pessimism. The artist is not meant to
be a judge of
his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial
witness. I heard two Russians in a muddled conversation about
pessimism, a conversation that solved nothing; all I am bound to do is
reproduce that conversation exactly as I heard it.
Drawing conclusions is up
to the jury, that is, the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is,
know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to
place my characters in the proper light and speak their
language. To Alexei Suvorin, May 30, 1888
The suicide of a seventeen-year-old boy is a very
tempting theme, but a frightening one to undertake.
An issue so painful to us all calls for a painfully forceful
response, and do we young
writers have the inner resources for it? No.
When you guarantee the
success of this theme, you are judging by your own standards.
in addition to talent, the men of your generation had erudition,
schooling, iron and phosphorus, while contemporary talents
have nothing of
the sort. Frankly speaking, there is reason to rejoice that they
from serious problems. Let them have a go at your
and I am certain that X, completely unaware of what
he is doing, will
slander him and pile lie upon blasphemy with the purest
Y will give him a shot of pallid and petty tendentiousness;
while Z will
explain away the suicide as a psychosis. Your boy is of a
good, pure nature. He seeks after God. He is loving, sensitive
and deeply hurt. To handle a figure like that, an author has
to be capable of suffering, while all our contemporary authors
can do is whine and snivel. To Dmitry Grigorovich, January 12,
Critical articles, even the unjust, abusive kind, are usually met
with a silent bow. Such is literary etiquette. Answering
back goes against custom, and anyone who indulges in it is
justly accused of excessive vanity. ... The fate of literature
(both major and minor) would be
one if it were at the mercy of personal opinions. Point
number one. And
number two, there is no police force in existence that can
competent in matters of literature. I agree that we can't do
muzzle or the stick, because sharpers ooze their way into
just as anywhere else. But no matter how hard you try,
you won't come
up with a better police force for literature than criticism
author's own conscience. People have been at it since
the beginning of
creation, but they've invented nothing better. To Maria
Kiselyova, January 14, 1887
"Do you know," Ivan Bunin recalls Anton Chekhov saying to him in 1899,
near the end of his too-short life, "for how many years I shall
be read? Seven." "Why seven?" Bunin asked. "Well," Chekhov answered,
"seven and a half then." quoted by Donald Fanger, New York
Times, March 14, 1999
Your statement that the world is "teeming with villains and
villainesses" is true. Human nature is imperfect, so it would be odd to
perceive none but the righteous. Requiring literature to dig up a "pearl"
from the pack of villains is tantamount to negating literature altogether.
Literature is accepted as an art because it depicts life as it actually is.
Its aim is the truth, unconditional and honest. Limiting its functions
to as narrow a field as extracting "pearls" would be as deadly for art
as requiring Levitan to draw a tree without any dirty bark or yellowed
leaves. A "pearl" is a fine thing, I agree. But the writer is not a pastry
chef, he is not a cosmetician and not an entertainer. He is a man bound
by contract to his sense of duty and to his conscience. Once he
undertakes this task, it is too late for excuses, and no matter how
horrified, he must do battle with his squeamishness and sully his
imagination with the grime of life. He is just like any ordinary
reporter. What would you
say if a newspaper reporter as a result of squeamishness or a
please his readers were to limit his descriptions to honest
high-minded ladies, and virtuous railroadmen?
To a chemist there is nothing impure on earth. The writer should
be just as objective as the chemist; he should liberate himself from
everyday subjectivity and acknowledge that manure piles play a highly
respectable role in the landscape and that evil passions are every bit
as much a part of life as good ones. To Maria
Kiselyova, January 14, 1887
Translation by Ivy Litvinov,
from The Stories of Anton Chekhov,
Ed Ralph E Matlaw. WW Norton, 1979.