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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

Jeanette Winterson’s 10 Tips on Writing

“Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.”

In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s classic 10 Rules of Writing published nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian invited some of the world’s most celebrated living authors to share their own dicta of the craft. “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied,” Zadie Smith counseled in the last of her ten. Midway through her list, Margaret Atwood grounded the psychological dimensions of the craft in the pragmatic and the physical: “Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.” Neil Gaiman thought eight rather than ten tenets would be sufficient — a meta-testament to his sixth: “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”

Among the contributors was Jeanette Winterson — a writer of exquisite prose and keen insight into the deepest strata of the human experience: time and language, our elemental need for belonging, the power of art, how storytelling transforms us.

Jeanette Winterson (Photograph: Polly Borland)

Winterson offers:

  1. Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.
  2. Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.
  3. Love what you do.
  4. Be honest with yourself. If you are no good, accept it. If the work you are ­doing is no good, accept it.
  5. Don’t hold on to poor work. If it was bad when it went in the drawer it will be just as bad when it comes out.
  6. Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect.
  7. Take no notice of anyone with a ­gender agenda. A lot of men still think that women lack imagination of the fiery kind.
  8. Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.
  9. Trust your creativity.
  10. Enjoy this work!

For more hard-earned guidance on the writing process from other titans of literature, see Henry Miller’s eleven commandments of writing, Eudora Welty on the art of narrative, Susan Sontag’s advice to writers, and T.S. Eliot’s warm, wry letter of advice to a sixteen-year-old girl aspiring to be a writer.

BP

Voltaire on the Art of Being Undefeated by Hardship

“All comes out even at the end of the day, and all comes out still more even when all the days are over.”

Voltaire on the Art of Being Undefeated by Hardship

“Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his advice on how to grow old with contentment.

Nearly two centuries earlier, the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778), lover of the trailblazing mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, offered a complementary perspective on what it means and what it takes to move through life undefeated by hardship and buoyed by a larger sense of meaning.

Voltaire

Quoted in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (public library | free ebook) — William James’s 1902 masterwork, which gave us his insight into science and spirituality and the four qualities of transcendent consciousness — Voltaire writes to a friend at the age of seventy-three:

Weak as I am, I carry on the war to the last moment, I get a hundred pike-thrusts, I return two hundred, and I laugh. I see near my door Geneva on fire with quarrels over nothing, and I laugh again; and, thank God, I can look upon the world as a farce even when it becomes as tragic as it sometimes does. All comes out even at the end of the day, and all comes out still more even when all the days are over.

Complement with Henry Miller on the measure of a life well lived, Albert Camus on tenacity through difficult times, and Grace Paley’s offering of what might be the wisest advice on the art of growing older, then revisit Voltaire on writing and how to stay true to your creative vision and this lovely vintage children’s book based on his pioneering sci-fi philosophical homage to Newton.

BP

How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life

“Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”

How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life

“If you can fall in love again and again,” Henry Miller wrote as he contemplated the measure of a life well lived on the precipice of turning eighty, “if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical… you’ve got it half licked.”

Seven years earlier, the great British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) considered the same abiding question at the same life-stage in a wonderful short essay titled “How to Grow Old,” penned in his eighty-first year and later published in Portraits from Memory and Other Essays (public library).

bertrandrussell3
Bertrand Russell

Russell places at the heart of a fulfilling life the dissolution of the personal ego into something larger. Drawing on the longstanding allure of rivers as existential metaphors, he writes:

Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.

In a sentiment which philosopher and comedian Emily Levine would echo in her stirring reflection on facing her own death with equanimity, Russell builds on the legacy of Darwin and Freud, who jointly established death as an organizing principle of modern life, and concludes:

The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

Portraits from Memory and Other Essays is an uncommonly potent packet of wisdom in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with Nobel laureate André Gide on how happiness increases with age, Ursula K. Le Guin on aging and what beauty really means, and Grace Paley on the art of growing older — the loveliest thing I’ve ever read on the subject — then revisit Russell on critical thinking, power-knowledge vs. love-knowledge, what “the good life” really means, why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, and his remarkable response to a fascist’s provocation.

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