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Anton Chekhov’s 6 Rules for a Great Story

Mastering the essential complementarity of compassion and total objectivity.

Anton Chekhov’s 6 Rules for a Great Story

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted,” Kurt Vonnegut offered in the first of his 8 tips for writing a good story. “A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds,” the pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner observed in his essay on what makes a great story. “Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness.” What, then, makes for maximally convincing lifelikeness in a story that leaves the reader grateful for the time spent reading it?

That is what Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (January 29, 1860–July 15, 1904) examined in a letter to his brother Alexander, included in the 1973 volume Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentaries (public library),

Anton Chekhov (Portrait by Osip Braz, 1898)

Writing on May 10, 1888, Chekhov lays out his six tenets of a great story:

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  6. Compassion

Embedded in the complementarity rather than contradiction of the second and the sixth — total objectivity and compassion — is the recognition that no depiction of reality is realistic unless it include an empathic account of all perspectives, which might be the defining characteristic not only of Chekhov as a writer but of any great storyteller.

Chekhov had put his own principles to fine use — that year, his short story collection At Dusk won him the prestigious Pushkin Prize, named after his famed compatriot Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (June 6, 1799–February 10, 1837), who had articulated a remarkably similar philosophy of storytelling half a century earlier.

In a fragment from 1830, Pushkin considers what makes a great dramatist — the most esteemed species of storyteller in the era’s ecosystem of literature — and lists the following necessary qualities:

A philosophy, impartiality, the political acumen of a historian, insight, a lively imagination. No prejudices or preconceived ideas. Freedom.

Complement with Chekhov — a lover of lists — on the 8 qualities of cultured people, then revisit other abiding advice on the craft from great writers: Susan Sontag on the art of storytelling, Jeanette Winterson’s 10 rules of writing and another 10 from Zadie Smith, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, John Steinbeck’s 6 guideposts, Jack Kerouac’s 30 “beliefs & techniques” for writing and life, Eudora Welty on the art of narrative, Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories, James Baldwin’s advice to writers, and Ernest Hemingway’s reading list of essential books for every aspiring writer to read.

BP

Beethoven and the Crucial Difference Between Genius and Talent

“Genius has to be founded on major talent, but it adds a freshness and wildness of imagination, a raging ambition, an unusual gift for learning and growing, a depth and breadth of thought and spirit…”

Beethoven and the Crucial Difference Between Genius and Talent

The question of whether talent and genius differ in degree or in kind is an abiding one, and often discomfiting for any creative person to contemplate — we don’t, after all, like to consider that we might be merely endowed with talent but bereft of genius. And yet examining the relationship between the two can be a source of tremendously vitalizing insight into the creative spirit in its multitude of manifestations. Thoreau drew a vital distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius. Schopenhauer likened talent to hitting a target no one else can hit and genius to hitting a target no one else can see. “Genius gives birth, talent delivers,” Jack Kerouac asserted in contemplating whether great artists are born or made. “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin cautioned aspiring writers as he considered the real building blocks of genius.

Another illuminating distinction between genius and talent comes from biographer Jan Swafford in Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (public library) — his fascinating account of an artist marked by the tragic and triumphant genius of being an outsider, whom Swafford describes as “utterly sure of himself and his gift, but no less self-critical and without sentimentality concerning his work.”

Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler

With an eye to Beethoven’s unmistakable genius, Swafford writes:

Genius is something that lies on the other side of talent… Talent is largely inborn, and in a given field some people have it to a far higher degree than others. Still, in the end talent is not enough to push you to the highest achievements. Genius has to be founded on major talent, but it adds a freshness and wildness of imagination, a raging ambition, an unusual gift for learning and growing, a depth and breadth of thought and spirit, an ability to make use of not only your strengths but also your weaknesses, an ability to astonish not only your audience but yourself.

Reflecting on the cultural history of genius, Swafford adds:

My sense of the idea is closer to that of the eighteenth century: I believe in genius, but not in demigods… For me, the idea of spending one’s life chasing something impossible is simply normal, necessary, even a touch heroic. It is what artists do all the time.

He quotes Beethoven himself, who wrote in a poetic passage from his 1812 letter to Emilie:

The true artist has no pride. He sees unfortunately that art has no limits; he has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps admire him, he laments the fact that he has not yet reached the point whither his better genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.

Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly fascinating Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph with neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the six “diseases of the will” that keep the talented from achieving greatness, then revisit Beethoven’s stirring letter to his brothers about how music saved his life and the secret to his superhuman vitality.

BP

Three Worlds: Composer Max Richter Brings Virginia Woolf’s Most Beloved Writing to Sonic Life

A masterwork of immense originality and haunting splendor.

“Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations,” Virginia Woolf observed in the only surviving recording of her voice. “They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries.”

These words open Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works by German-born English composer Max Richter — a masterwork of immense originality and haunting splendor. Richter accomplishes the seemingly impossible — almost without words, he brings to life the mindscape and creative legacy of one of the greatest artists in the English language, who was herself an ardent lover of music.

Composed as a companion to Wayne McGregor’s ballet triptych inspired by Woolf’s work, the record is divided into three parts, each animating one of Woolf’s most beloved books: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. What emerges is an exquisite embodiment of philosopher Susanne Langer’s assertion that “music is ‘significant form,’ and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object.”

Complement the thoroughly transcendent Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works with Patti Smith’s tribute to Virginia, then revisit other beloved writers celebrated by musicians: Jack Kerouac set to music by Patti Smith, E.E. Cummings set to music by Tin Hat, William Blake set to music by The Wraiths, W.B. Yeats set to music by Christine Tobin, Shannon Hawley’s musical homage to the poetry and philosophy of Rumi, Rilke, Mary Oliver, and Tagore Allen Ginsberg’s musical adaptation of Blake, and Natalie Merchant’s songs based on Victorian nursery rhymes.

BP

The Nothingness of Personality: Young Borges on the Self

“There is no whole self. It suffices to walk any distance along the inexo­rable rigidity that the mirrors of the past open to us in order to feel like out­siders, naively flustered by our own bygone days.”

The Nothingness of Personality: Young Borges on the Self

You find yourself in a city you hadn’t visited in years, walking along a street you had once strolled down with your fingers interlacing a long-ago lover’s, someone you then cherished as the most extraordinary person in the world, who is now married in Jersey with two chubby bulldogs. You find yourself shocked by how an experience of such vivid verisimilitude can be fossilized into a mere memory buried in the strata of what feels like a wholly different person, living a wholly different life — it was you who then lived it, and you who now remembers it, and yet the two yous have almost nothing in common. They inhabit different geographical and social loci, lead different lives, love different loves, dream different dreams. Hardly a habit unites them. Even most of the cells in the body striding down that street are different.

What, then, makes you you? And what is inside that cocoon of certitudes we call a self?

It’s an abiding question with which each of us tussles periodically, and one which has occupied some of humanity’s most fertile minds. The ancient Greeks addressed it in the brilliant Ship of Theseus thought experiment. Walt Whitman marveled at the paradox of the self. Simone de Beauvoir contemplated how chance and choice converge to make us who we are. Jack Kerouac denounced “the imaginary idea of a personal self.” Amelie Rorty taxonomized the seven layers of identity. Rebecca Goldstein examined what makes you and your childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of change.

The young Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) set out to explore this abiding question in one of his earliest prose pieces, the 1922 essay “The Nothingness of Personality,” found in his splendid posthumously collection Selected Non-Fictions (public library).

Jorge Luis Borges, 1923

Shortly after his family returned to their native Buenos Aires after a decade in Europe and more than a year before he published his first collection of poems, the 22-year-old Borges begins by setting his unambiguous, unambivalent intention:

I want to tear down the exceptional preeminence now generally awarded to the self, and I pledge to be spurred on by concrete certainty, and not the caprice of an ideological ambush or a dazzling intellectual prank. I propose to prove that personality is a mirage maintained by conceit and custom, without metaphysical foundation or visceral reality. I want to apply to literature the consequences that issue from these premises, and erect upon them an aesthetic hostile to the psychologism inherited from the last century, sympathetic to the classics, yet encouraging to today’s most unruly tendencies.

Exactly three decades before he faced his multitudes in the fantastic Borges and I, he writes:

There is no whole self. Any of life’s present situations is seamless and sufficient. Are you, as you ponder these disquietudes, anything more than an in­difference gliding over the argument I make, or an appraisal of the opinions I expound?

I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention. That proposition and a few muscular sensations, and the sight of the limpid branches that the trees place outside my window, constitute my current I.

It would be vanity to suppose that in order to enjoy absolute validity this psychic aggregate must seize on a self, that conjectural Jorge Luis Borges on whose tongue sophistries are always at the ready and in whose solitary strolls the evenings on the fringes of the city are pleasant.

Illustration by Cecilia Ruiz from The Book of Memory Gaps, inspired by Borges

Half a century before neuroscientists demonstrated that memory is the seedbed of the self, Borges writes:

There is no whole self. He who defines personal identity as the private possession of some depository of memories is mistaken. Whoever affirms such a thing is abusing the symbol that solidifies memory in the form of an enduring and tangible granary or warehouse, when memory is no more than the noun by which we imply that among the innumerable possible states of consciousness, many occur again in an imprecise way. Moreover, if I root personality in remembrance, what claim of ownership can be made on the elapsed instants that, because they were quotidian or stale, did not stamp us with a lasting mark? Heaped up over years, they lie buried, inac­cessible to our avid longing. And that much-vaunted memory to whose rul­ing you made appeal, does it ever manifest all its past plenitude? Does it truly live? The sensualists and their ilk, who conceive of your personality as the sum of your successive states of mind, are similarly deceiving them­ selves. On closer scrutiny, their formula is no more than an ignominious circumlocution that undermines the very foundation it constructs, an acid that eats away at itself, a prattling fraud and a belabored contradiction.

In a passage of inimitable Borgesian splendor, he adds:

I do not deny this consciousness of being, nor the immediate security of here I am that it breathes into us. What I do deny is that all our other convictions must be adjusted to the customary antithesis between the self and the non-self, and that this antithesis is constant. The sensation of cold, of spacious and plea­surable suppleness, that is in me as I open the front door and go out along the half-darkness of the street is neither a supplement to a pre-existing self nor an event that comes coupled to the other event of a continuing and rig­orous self.

[…]

There is no whole self. It suffices to walk any distance along the inexo­rable rigidity that the mirrors of the past open to us in order to feel like out­siders, naively flustered by our own bygone days. There is no community of intention in them, nor are they propelled by the same breeze.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Borges draws on two of his great influences in fortifying his point — Walt Whitman, “the first Atlas who attempted to make this obstinacy a reality and take the world upon his shoulders,” and who had himself contemplated the perplexity of personal identity seven decades earlier, and Arthur Schopenhauer, whose words Borges cites directly:

An infinite time has run its course before my birth; what was I through­out all that time? Metaphysically, the answer might perhaps be: I was always I; that is, all who during that time said I, were in fact I.

Echoing Kafka’s reflections on reality vs. appearance, Borges adds:

Reality has no need of other realities to bolster it. There are no divini­ties hidden in the trees, nor any elusive thing-in-itself behind appearances, nor a mythological self that orders our actions. Life is truthful appearance.

Citing a famous Buddhist precept of non-self — “those things of which I can perceive the be­ginnings and the end are not my self” — Borges illustrates its veracity with the palpable realness of its living manifestations:

I, for example, am not the visual reality that my eyes encompass, for if I were, darkness would kill me and nothing would remain in me to desire the spectacle of the world, or even to forget it. Nor am I the audible world that I hear, for in that case si­lence would erase me and I would pass from sound to sound without memory of the previous one. Subsequent identical lines of argument can be directed toward the senses of smell, taste, and touch, proving not only that I am not the world of appearances — a thing generally known and undisputed — but that the apperceptions that indicate that world are not my self either. That is, I am not my own activity of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. Nor am I my body, which is a phenomenon among oth­ers. Up to this point the argument is banal; its distinction lies in its applica­tion to spiritual matters. Are desire, thought, happiness, and distress my true self? The answer, in accordance with the precept, is clearly in the negative, since those conditions expire without annulling me with them. Consciousness — the final hideout where we might track down the self­ — also proves unqualified. Once the emotions, the extraneous perceptions, and even ever-shifting thought are dismissed, consciousness is a barren thing, without any appearance reflected in it to make it exist.

Borges concludes:

The self [is] a mere logical imperative, without qualities of its own or distinctions from individual to individual.

Complement this particular fragment of Borges’s wholly terrific Selected Non-Fictions with Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue on selfhood and the crucible of identity, philosopher Jacob Needleman on how we become who we are, and neuroscientist Sam Harris on the paradox of free will, then revisit Borges on writing and his sublime refutation of time.

BP

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