Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Chekhov Thought He Was a Bad Writer

Every writer has moments where the words on the page don't come together. Your characterization is banal. Your plotting is tedious. Even the most basic decisions of word choice sound cliched in your mind.

There is an air of uncertainty when you have written something. How will the world react? Will people read the piece, much more so like it? Dire, soul searching moments come. In your mind you realize that every story that can be told has already been told a hundred different ways in dozens of languages. The idea of sending a piece out is ludicrous. No one will ever see your words and if they did, you would be the ridicule of your community. You cradle your head in front of the glowing screen and wonder what you could possibly have to offer after greats like Joyce; Hemingway; Nabokov.

In moments like these, I think of Anton Chekhov.

He brings a psychological realism to fiction that was both innovative and enduring. The characters he created still have relevance today. Despite his achievements, he, too, had doubts. Look at his letter to D.V. Grigorovich, an important writer of the time.
...If I do have a gift that should be respected, I confess before your pure heart that up to now I haven't respected it. I felt that I had it, but got used to considering it insignificant. There are plenty of purely external reasons to make an individual unfair, extremely suspicious, and distrustful of himself, and I reflect now that there have been plenty of such reasons in my case. All my friends and relations were always condescending toward my writing and constantly advised me in a friendly way not to give up real work for scribbling. I have hundreds of friends in Moscow, a score of whom write, and I cannot recall a single one who read my work or considered me an artist. There is a so-called "literary circle" in Moscow: talents and mediocrities of all shapes and sizes gather once a week in a restaurant and exercise their tongues. If I were to go there and read them a mere snippet of your letter, they would laugh in my face. During the five years I have been roaming around editorial offices I managed to succumb to the general view of my literary insignificance, quickly got used to looking at my work condescendingly, and - kept plugging away!
Such despair exhibited from a now canonical writer. In this excerpt from the Norton Anthology, we can see how writing existed as a solitary, thankless task for Chekhov, yet a single letter of encouragement form Grigorovich provides enough encouragement to exalt the writer. Chekhov later endeavors in the letter to "undertake something serious" in his writing. All this emotion came from a letter of critical praise.

Sometimes all a writer needs is one voice to acknowledge the achievement of creating something. So in those moments when you stare at the page and doubt your words have any worth, remember Chekhov. Even a master of the short story had doubts. We're still reading him over a hundred years after the fact. Then keep plugging away.

Chekhov's perseverance provides today's reader with a wealth of stories to enjoy. Imagine if he hadn't continued to write. What would the state of the short story be? Above all a writer must remember to keep writing. It is the act of writing, not the acclaim, that makes one a writer. Send your work out and hope for publication, words of praise, or constructive critiques. And if these don't come, don't stop writing. Otherwise, we might not have stories like Chekhov's for the next generation of readers.

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