Eat Your Cake: Think Like Chekhov
Four unconventional strategies for success
Russian author Anton Chekhov had a lot to say about writing and it’s still worth listening to, even more than a century after his death at age 44. Not only is he regarded as one of the world’s best short story writers, he is often credited with inventing the form itself.
Before Chekhov began publishing in the late 1800s, the primary function of a story was to serve as a vehicle to deliver information. Chekhov turned the genre on its head: he nudged his editors to publish stories that went deeper.
Despite their short length, Chekhov’s stories reveal much about character, setting and culture. He was writing epiphanies long before James Joyce talked about the importance of transformation in fiction. On top of it all, Chekhov remains one of Russia’s most talented playwrights whose work is produced worldwide today.
In a letter to his brother Alexander, he laid out a few rules for writing that are just as valid today as they were in 1886. To be good, a story should contain:
1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic nature;
2. Total objectivity;
3. Truthful description of persons and objects;
4. Extreme brevity;
5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype;
As a practicing doctor, Chekhov applied the same principles to writing that he did to treating his patients. He believed it was imperative to study his subjects closely without bias: this meant making honest, morality-free assessments. He put little stock in what everybody else was saying and he hated pretentiousness. He also strongly advocated empathy and treated peasants with the same care that he treated the rich.
So his advice to his brother was good — even great. But it isn’t what interests me most about Chekhov. What really catches my attention is that he found immense success as a writer when it was the last thing on his mind.
Here are four Chekhovian rules I’ve come up with after studying his life:
1. Be nosy
Chekhov got plenty of material from his professional duties, but he searched unceasingly for new ideas. He visited — haunted is the better word — as many places as he could in search of stories. The naturally shy author hung out at cafes, hospitals, courtrooms, post offices, theaters, mess halls, smoke shops, taverns and anywhere else he could find people willing to talk.
Class meant nothing to him. Chekhov chatted with wealthy merchants as easily as he did with homeless drunks. He jotted down all he could in a notebook he always carried with him. When that wasn’t enough he paid family and friends: 10 kopecks for an anecdote, 20 kopecks for an entire plot.
2. Forget about good writing
Chekhov obviously put a tremendous amount of care into his best work. No one knew the craft better than he did. But when he first started writing, his primary concern was earning enough money to support his family.
So he wrote fast and he wrote a lot. As in a lot. When he wasn’t studying for medical school or out on the streets in search of new material, he was writing. He didn’t put much thought into what he wrote or which magazines he wrote for. He wrote for any amount of money, large or small, and he wrote for anybody who would pay him. Before he gained recognition he published hundreds of humor pieces, news stories, gossipy snippets, sketches, and, yes, short stories.
At the beginning of what became a literary career, the furthest thing from Chekhov’s mind was creating works of art. He didn’t even bother to use his real name, preferring a slew of pen names. In fact, it wasn’t until one of Russia’s leading critics wrote him in 1886 that Chekhov began to take his work seriously.
Even then, he still forced himself to produce new work at breakneck speed. He wrote a play in 10 days, another in a month. He could sit down to his desk and crank out four stories in a single sitting. In part, this was due to his “obsession” with family money problems and in part because he was just busy. Besides working long hours as a doctor, he spent time supervising the production of his plays, traveling and even building a school.
3. Don’t write what you know
Rather, don’t limit yourself to what you already know. In addition to wandering Moscow, Chekhov was never afraid to push his limits in search of new expertise. He once heard about a murder and hurried to the scene of the crime, where he got permission to attend the autopsy. It took place under an Oak tree alongside a dusty country road. He turned the experience into “The Corpse,” one of his most famous stories (and one of my favorites).
Chekhov would later push himself even further in his quest to gain knowledge about what he didn’t understand. Despite ill health, he undertook a grueling journey to Siberia to investigate prison conditions there. He set off with little more than a sheepskin coat, a pair of boots, a revolver and a long knife “for cutting sausages and chasing tigers.”
The conditions on Sakhalin Island were far worse than he could have imagined. Waking at five every morning, he interviewed murderers, thieves and prostitutes as young as ten years old. As if that weren’t bad enough, he asked to attend a public whipping. Chekhov left after the ninetieth blow to the prisoner’s back but he’d seen enough: “For three or four nights thereafter, I dreamed of the torturer.”
His efforts paid off. According to The New Yorker, “‘Sakhalin Island’ is the best work of journalism written in the nineteenth century.”
4. Eat cake (and drink champagne)
In other words, celebrate your triumphs. no matter how small. After he sold his first story at 20, Chekhov bought his family an enormous cake. The editor who accepted “Letter to a Learned Neighbor” had only agreed to pay him half a kopeck a line (about half a penny) and informed him it would be at least two months before he received the money.
Chekhov didn’t care — he was thrilled at his good luck and happy to share it with the people he loved. Though he suffered from bouts of melancholy throughout his life, he never lost his sense of joy in small things. On his deathbed, he, his wife Olga and his doctor drank champagne. Tuberculosis had destroyed his body, but not his spirit.
There are also three tried-and-true staples Chekhov adhered to that I can’t omit:
Read as much as you can
Like every other successful writer in history, Chekhov spent a huge amount of time reading. Because his family was poor, he essentially camped out at the local library as a teenager, often forgetting to eat. His reading habit continued for the rest of his life. Even when he was bedridden from tuberculosis, he continued to send for books and spent hours annotating what he read.
Ignore the critics
Chekhov paid little heed to his detractors, though they paid a lot of attention to him. Like most authors, he encountered rejection and criticism when he first began submitting. “Very long and colorless” wrote one Moscow editor. “You have ceased to flower; you are withering,” wrote another.
The criticism never faded altogether. When he wrote about Sakhalin, his rivals accused him of trying to imitate Dostoevsky. Despite publishing brilliant stories, jealous peers derided him for not writing novels.
Don’t quit your day job
Chekhov could have stopped working once he gained fame as a fiction writer and a playwright. But he refused to do it. Not only did he gain great satisfaction from his job as a doctor, but he also mined it for material for his stories and plays. He loved both.
“Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other. Though it is irregular, it is less boring this way, and besides, neither of them loses anything through my infidelity.”
If you’re interested in finding out more about Chekhov, I recommend Henri Troyat’s wonderful biography. Or just read his stories. The truth of his life — and his remarkable talent — lies within.
And the next time you’re asking yourself why you’re cranking out articles for hardly any money, remember how Chekhov started. Then buy yourself a piece of cake.
This story was originally published in The Innovation.