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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

Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on the Malady of “Content” and How to Save Creative Culture from the Syphoning of Substance

“When there is communication without need for communication, merely so that someone may earn the social and intellectual prestige of becoming a priest of communication, the quality and communicative value of the message drop like a plummet.”

Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on the Malady of “Content” and How to Save Creative Culture from the Syphoning of Substance

“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1964. “Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” I have thought about Sontag’s prescience again and again in my decade-plus on the internet, watching creative culture reduced to mere “content” as the life of the mind and world of substantive ideas collapse into an abyss of marketable sensationalism and cynicism; watching the cowardice of clickbaitable outrage eclipse the courage — at this point a countercultural courage — to create rather than tear down, to refuse to flatten life’s nuance, complexity, and dimensionality into simplistic binaries, to grow the container that holds our understanding of the world rather than purvey its continually cheapened “content.”

More than a decade before Sontag and more than half a century before the social web as we know it, the mathematician, philosopher, and cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894–March 18, 1964) offered a prescient admonition against this tendency in The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (public library) — his visionary 1950 treatise on communication, control, and the moral dimension of technology, which went on to influence thinkers as diverse as beloved author Kurt Vonnegut, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier.

Norbert Wiener

In a sentiment that applies with striking precision to the cultural economics of the Internet, Wiener writes:

The newspaper business has come to be the art of saying less and less to more and more… [This] applies equally to the radio, to television, and even to bookselling. Thus we are in an age where the enormous per capita bulk of communication is met by an ever-thinning stream of total bulk of communication. More and more we must accept a standardized inoffensive and insignificant product which, like the white bread of the bakeries, is made rather for its keeping and selling properties than for its food value.

This is fundamentally an external handicap of modern communication, but it is paralleled by another which gnaws from within. This is the cancer of creative narrowness and feebleness.

Wiener locates the source of this “creative narrowness and feebleness” in the hijacking of the impetus for and innate rewards of creative work by the Skinner box of external affirmation — the prestige, acclaim, visibility, and commendation that come all the more readily today via the compulsive lever of social media, with its ceaseless supply of likes, retweets, shares, and other pellets of rapidly metabolized but hardly nutritious affirmation. Wiener writes:

The artist, the writer, and the scientist should be moved by such an irresistible impulse to create that, even if they were not being paid for their work, they would be willing to pay to get the chance to do it. However… it is now considered perhaps more a matter of social prestige to obtain a higher degree and follow what may be regarded as a cultural career, than a matter of any deep impulse… The earlier stages of creative work, whether in the arts or in the sciences, which should properly be governed by a great desire on the part of the students to create something and to communicate it to the world at large, are now subject instead to the formal requirements of finding Ph.D. theses or similar apprentice media. Lord only knows that there are enough problems yet to be solved, books to be written, and music to be composed! Yet for all but a very few, the path to these lies through the performance of perfunctory tasks which in nine cases out of ten have no compelling reason to be performed. Heaven save us from the first novels which are written because a young man desires the prestige of being a novelist rather than because he has something to say! Heaven save us likewise from the mathematical papers which are correct and elegant but without body or spirit. Heaven save us above all from the snobbery which not only admits the possibility of this thin and perfunctory work, but which cries out in a spirit of shrinking arrogance against the competition of vigor and ideas, wherever these may be found!

Art by Ralph Steadman from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In another sentiment of astonishing prescience in the context of contemporary media, Wiener adds:

When there is communication without need for communication, merely so that someone may earn the social and intellectual prestige of becoming a priest of communication, the quality and communicative value of the message drop like a plummet.

The Human Use of Human Beings remains a sobering and intensely insightful read. Complement this particular aspect of it with Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of real human communication, Erich Fromm’s six rules of listening for unselfish understanding, and Alain de Botton on what makes a good communicator.

BP

You Belong Here: An Illustrated Antidote to Our Existential Homelessness

Sweet consolation for the lifelong alienation that afflicts each of us at different times and in different measures.

You Belong Here: An Illustrated Antidote to Our Existential Homelessness

There is hardly a more elemental human need than our need for belonging — in a place, in a heart, in ourselves. Perhaps this is why we are so susceptible to that particular kind of loneliness that begins in childhood, as we try to master the “fertile solitude” necessary for self-esteem, and can so often morph into a kind of existential homelessness as we grow older and slip into continually narrowing landscapes of possibility. “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic 1973 conversation about freedom.

That elusive, coveted locus of belonging is what poet and writer M.H. Clark explores in the spare and lovely You Belong Here (public library).

Illustrated by Isabel Arsenault — the artist behind such treasures as a picture-book about Louise Bourgeois, a graphic novel inspired by Jane Eyre, and the story of Virginia Woolf and her sister — the lyrical and almost songlike story meets different creatures in their habitats and homes: the whales in the sea, the deer in the forest, the frogs and the lilies in the lake, the lizard on the sunlit rock. Each creature belongs exactly where it is.

An invisible narrator addresses an invisible listener — perhaps a child, or the inner child that lives in each of us — with the assurance that the two belong together, no matter how far and across how many landscapes they may travel from one another.

The stars belong in the deep night sky
and the moon belongs there too,
and the winds belong in each place they blow by
and I belong here
with you.

Complement You Belong Here — sweet consolation for the lifelong alienation that afflicts each of us at different times and in different measures — with Derek Walcott’s timeless ode to being at home in ourselves, Carson Ellis’s lovely illustrated celebration of the many meanings of home, and Kurt Vonnegut on belonging in community, then revisit the beautiful and bittersweet Arsenault-illustrated story of how Paul Gauguin became an artist and Clark’s wonderful Tiny Perfect Things.

BP

The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage

“Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls,” the great Lebanese-American poet, philosopher, and painter Kahlil Gibran counseled in what remains the finest advice on the secret to a loving and lasting relationship.

Our paradoxical longing for intimacy and independence is a diamagnetic force — it pulls us toward togetherness and simultaneously repels us from it with a mighty magnet that, if unskillfully handled, can rupture a relationship and break a heart. Under this unforgiving magnetism, it becomes an act of superhuman strength and self-transcendence to give space to the other when all one wants is closeness. And yet this difficult act may be the very thing — perhaps the only thing — that saves the relationship over and over.

Two decades before Gibran, at the dawn of the twentieth century, another great poet of abiding insight into the turbulences of the human heart contemplated this predicament. In a letter to the 19-year-old cadet and budding poet Franz Xaver Kappus, Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) offered some spectacular advice on managing the bipolar pull of autonomy and togetherness in a way that assures the longevity of any close bond and protects love from self-destruction. The passages, originally published in Rilke’s classic Letters to a Young Poet — the record of his six-year correspondence with Kappus, which also gave us Rilke’s timeless wisdom on the lonely patience of creative work, what it takes to be an artist, why we read, and how hardship enlarges us — appear in the wonderful poetry and prose anthology Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties: Translations and Considerations (public library), selected and translated by the scholar and philosopher John Mood.

1902 portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke by Helmuth Westhoff, Rilke’s brother-in-law

Rilke writes to his young correspondent:

I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.

A century before psychologist Esther Perel asserted in her landmark book on the central paradox of relationships that “love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy” because “our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness,” Rilke considers how our cultural constructs around what it means to be coupled obstruct happiness in union:

It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of his fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

Therefore this too must be the standard for rejection or choice: whether one is willing to stand guard over the solitude of a person and whether one is inclined to set this same person at the gate of one’s own solitude, of which he learns only through that which steps, festively clothed, out of the great darkness.

Illustration from An ABZ of Love, Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality

This principle, Rilke points out, holds true not only in marriage but in any close relationship and any bond desired to last a lifetime:

All companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes, whereas everything that one is wont to call giving oneself is by nature harmful to companionship: for when a person abandons himself, he is no longer anything, and when two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling… Once there is disunity between them, the confusion grows with every day; neither of the two has anything unbroken, pure, and unspoiled about him any longer… They who wanted to do each other good are now handling one another in an imperious and intolerant manner, and in the struggle somehow to get out of their untenable and unbearable state of confusion, they commit the greatest fault that can happen to human relationships: they become impatient. They hurry to a conclusion; to come, as they believe, to a final decision, they try once and for all to establish their relationship, whose surprising changes have frightened them, in order to remain the same now and forever (as they say).

Two millennia after Epictetus offered the Stoic cure for heartbreak in the recognition of the temporality and flux of all things, Rilke adds:

Self-transformation is precisely what life is, and human relationships, which are an extract of life, are the most changeable of all, rising and falling from minute to minute, and lovers are those in whose relationship and contact no one moment resembles another.

The outliers impervious to this supreme challenge of love are rare, Rilke notes; for the rest of us, there is only the hard, necessary work of love:

There are such relationships which must be a very great, almost unbearable happiness, but they can occur only between very rich natures and between those who, each for himself, are richly ordered and composed; they can unite only two wide, deep, individual worlds.

[…]

For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.

Complement this particular portion of the altogether beautiful and healing Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, and Kahlil Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, then revisit Rilke on inspiration and the combinatorial nature of creativity.

BP

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