The Craft: How I Overcame Some Very Bad Writing Advice from Chekhov

[This is part of a continuing series on the craft of writing fiction.]

You ever think about how Chekhov is an absolute master of the literary craft, especially of the short story? I do. If it’s not going too far, I would say he’s a genius. “The Lady with the Lap Dog,” “Steppe,” and other stories have a purity of tone, a quiet realism that many have imitated, but none have reproduced.

In the original Russian [which I do read fairly well], it’s even more intoxicating. It hits you like a narcotic, like a waking daydream and bears you along from opening line to final, resounding sentence. And while you’re in his grip, you will see what his characters see, smell what they smell, hear what they hear—and most importantly—feel what they feel. Joy, heartbreak, bliss, ennui, regret, pining hopefulness, it’s all in there.  

And he does it all without tricks, without artifice. Not for him are the stylistic pyrotechnics of a James Joyce or a Dos Passos or Hemingway! No! He employs plain, everyday language—the finest trick of all! He lulls you to sleep with it almost, makes you think he’s just an average writer…until…until…that one key insight, that killer line of dialogue revealing inner torment, that beautiful metaphor about the train calling in the distance over the fallow, autumn steppe. (Can you hear it?) In a phrase, he breaks your heart and, then, puts it back together again.

Did I mention he was a Master?

Well, as you can imagine I’ve read quite a bit of his stories and quite a bit about him. I read Henri Troyat’s biography, I read his letters, I read his stories. I tried—as any good writer should—to learn as much about the man and his words as I could. So, you can imagine my thrill, when I came upon this sage advice in one of his letters:

“My fire burns steady but low, it is not a matter of sparks suddenly erupting into flame, and that is why I don’t write 50 or 60 pages in a single night or get so absorbed in work that I deny myself my bed when sleep calls; and for the same reason I neither commit egregious idiocies nor achieve startling insights…I lack great passion.”

Letter to Alexey Suvorin, 4 May 1889.

I thought, to myself: “That’s it! That’s what I must do! If it worked for Chekhov, it must work for me. This is what I’ve been searching for!

And so, the next time I sat down to write, that’s exactly what I did. I emptied myself of all emotion. At least, as well as I could. I became an emotional vacuum. If I had a strong emotion, I would try to dispel it. I tried this for several writing sessions (thank goodness, not for several years!). And you know what happened?

Nothing good. Everything came out stilted, boring, flat. The characters, the action, the dialogue—all of it—was boring, lifeless. Now, Chekhov can be plot-less or boring at times—but it’s always soulful and rhythmic. But what I was writing was just dead.

So, what’s a writer to do?

That’s right! Try something different. I started letting a little emotion in, just a crack of light. It didn’t matter what it was: sadness, anger, happiness. I let it in just a squeak. The writing seemed to improve a bit, to take on life and verve. I let emotion come in more—the writing followed suit. It got its life back, its rhythm, its soul. And I thought: “I need more emotion! I am in the exact opposite place from where I started this journey!”  

Nowadays, I select the story or poem ideas that arouse the strongest emotion in me. It’s like, “OK, Darius! Which one of these skeletal ideas give you the most feels? Don’t think! And don’t worry about what that emotion is! Name one! Which idea in its embryonic state conjures the most extreme emotion?” And Bam! It’s this story or that story, this poem or that poem. I KNOW which one I HAVE TO write. I open a new doc in Word and get those fingers moving.

What’s interesting to me about this is that it occurred at about the same time I was going to a lot of concerts, mostly rock but also blues, soul, etc. These were almost always concerts in small venues across the South—in Memphis, in New Orleans, Savannah, etc. Now, there is a tradition, a tradition of what some might call “popular music,” or “Southern vernacular music,” or “soul music,” or that great catch-all: “rhythm and blues.” [That’s what we call a new musical genre in America when it doesn’t fit preexisting labels. So, always be on the lookout for innovation in that “genre”!]. In the South, this is a highly emotive, personal form of musical expression. Some (more knowledgeable than I) have traced this to the evangelical or Pentecostal strain in Christianity, in the sense that these musical forms emerged from these churches, became secularized, were polished by producers, and went on to become a global Pop Culture phenomena. I don’t know about that, it’s not the subject of this piece. But I do know that seeing this music live had a huge effect on me. It was a moving artistic experience.

Going back in my mind, I can’t help but wonder if this had an effect on my writing, too. If what I’ve been evolving toward is some sort of “soul literature” or “rhythm and blues literature.” Something raw and powerful that seeks to channel these strong emotions into art. In fact, I often think about the most powerful performers I’ve seen and how they gather their emotion and pour it into their art.

In my own writing, I look for something I’ve seen on my Southern trips. That earnestness of emotion in action. You can see that sort of thing here in Jerry Lee Lewis:

It’s not just confined to the South. Hear me now and believe me later: Los Angeles is one of the best places in the world to see live music. It’s notorious for luring in and spitting out bands that don’t bring their ‘A Game’ to live shows in town. But here’s Kesha with an absolutely stunning gem of a performance in Hollywood. You think she passed the test?

You should go catch a show time. In the South, in L.A., across America. Wherever. If you find the right venue, the right performer, the right night—Who knows? You might just feel something!

So what does this mean for the craft of writing? Well, it’s easy. Find what works for you. Not what works for your heroes, or your idols, or more experienced writers you know. Sit down. Write. Day after day, session after session. Discover your own writing style. It will come over time. Whether it involves being cold as ice or as emotional as hell—it will be whatever works for you! You will find it in the verve and word count you end up with every day. Get to it!

Gotta run! Take care, Friends!


[EDITOR’S NOTE: For the first time in the history of this blog I have decided to edit a post that is already live. In response to the Astroworld Festival tragedy of Nov. 5, I have edited the post above to remove references to an earlier concert by Travis Scott in Austin. I want this blog to be a safe and, more importantly, inspiring place for readers and feel it’s best not to have that content easily discoverable here. I wish swift healing to all the victims and those affected by this tragedy. Nov. 11, 2021. ,Darius.]

2 thoughts on “The Craft: How I Overcame Some Very Bad Writing Advice from Chekhov

  1. I took Chekhov’s words as condoning my plodding along at 500-800 words a day during NaNoWriMo. Slow burning fire!

    Like

    1. Like the post says, if that’s what works for you, great! Keep it up!

      Like

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