How to Write Like Chekhov, Advice and Inspiration, Straight From His Own Letters and Work.
Edited by Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek
Book Review and Commentary May 31, 2016
Reading the letters of authors is often an eye-opening experience for writers. In correspondence we can find an intimacy that a writing craft book fails to provide. In How to Write Like Chekhov, editors Brunello and Lencek give us an experience with Chekhov that goes beyond a technical craft book. And for this, I truly appreciated getting to know Chekhov’s thinking and values as he digs deeply into expressing himself as an artist and a man. Chekhov wrote 568 short stories, numerous novels, and plays. Tolstoy called him an ‘incomparable artist—an artist in life.’
How relative is his advice from over 100 years ago? Well, if you are looking for a mentor who understands the transformative power of art, this is your guy for the price of a $10 or $20 book. Or a free read at your library.
The book is in two parts: correspondence and travel memoir: part 1 is theory (mostly correspondence) and part 2 is demonstration (from his travel memoir The Island of Sakhalin). Lots of character sketches and landscape descriptions, which are models of prose. What stands out in this book is his voyage of discovery. This for any writer is really good bread to chew on.
For Whom Should One Write is a chapter four pages long. Money? Praise? Pleasure? You will find many short tips like practice makes perfect, don’t preach, don’t teach, talk long walks, visit cemeteries, lock up your story for a year and then read it again. I especially liked his advice on deadlines: “they [deadlines] produce haste and great weight and get in the way of writing.” Tell that to the Nanowrimo folks.
While he spends some time on brevity, polishing, cutting, and the literary police, it’s not until we get to Part 2, Good Shoes and a Notebook that the book comes full circle.
Chekhov says that a writer must ‘insert yourself into the scene.’ If a writer is the investigator of a scene, he or she ‘is also the object of the observation.’ How does this work? In the chapter “The Actual Writing” the author writes a scene from the Voyevodsk prison in Due. The prose here is impeccable with emotional truth that is classic Chekhov. I had to close the book for a moment; it was that powerful.
This book is not a guide on how to write; it is not a roadmap on how to write a better book. It is a clear observation into deep artistic expression and how to live the life of a writer, not just do it.
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860 — 1904) was a Russian physician, short story writer and playwright. Chekhov is thought to be the founder of the modern short story, known to influence such writers as Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Somerset Maugham, Raymond Carver, and John Cheever. Most famous for his plays The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters, The Sea-Gull.
Anton Chekhov died of tuberculosis at the age of 44 in 1904. His last words were, “I haven’t had champagne for a long time.” When there was no hope for a patient’s recovery, it was customary for the doctor to offer the patient a glass of champagne.
My Recommended List of the Best Writing Books I’ve Read.
Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing
the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin (book review here)
Writing Wild, Tina Welling (book review here)
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg (book review here)
Method Writing, Jack Grapes (book review here)
Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury (book review here)
On Writing, A Memoir, Stephen King (book review here)
Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway. All the basics of how to write: the writing process, show vs. tell, characterization, fictional atmosphere and place, story structure and plot, point of view, theme, and revision.
Story, Robert McKee
Story Trumps Structure, Steven James
The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass
The Art of Fiction, John Gardner (I reread this book once a year, it’s that good)
Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern
The Art of Character, David Corbett
Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins
The Secret Miracle, the Novelist’s Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcon
Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande
The Faith of a Writer, Life, Craft, Art, Joyce Carole Oates
If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose
Elements of Style, Strunk & White
Best Editing Books for Writers:
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne & Dave King
A Dash of Style, Noah Lukeman
The Grammar Bible, Michael Strumpf & Auriel Douglas
Line by Line, Claire Kehrwald Cook
The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Second Edition, Ernest Gowers
Chicago Manual of Style
Words Into Type, Third Edition, Skillin & Gay
Next writing book on my list to review is for mystery and supernatural writers:
The Annotated Dracula (Bram Stoker) Annotations by Mort Castle.
Writer’s Digest Edition.
Come with me and explore the craft and techniques of Bram Stoker.