In letters Chekhov wrote to his writing contemporaries, as well as his family, Chekhov often discussed his work and ideas about story craft. His words of wisdom are as relevant now as it was in the 1800s.
In a letter written in 1889 to his brother Alexander, Chekhov contemplated on the vagaries of descriptive writing:
“I think descriptions of nature should be very short and always be à propos. Commonplaces like “The setting sun, sinking into the waves of the darkening sea, cast its purple gold rays, etc,” or, “Swallows, flitting over the surface of the water, twittered gaily” — eliminate such commonplaces. You have to choose small details in describing nature, grouping them in such a way that if you close your eyes after reading it you can picture the whole thing. For example, you’ll get a picture of a moonlit night if you write that, “on the dam of the mill, a piece of broken bottle flashed like a bright star and the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled by like a ball, etc.”
The dramatic principle now known as ‘Chekhov’s gun’ emerged from a letter written in November 1889. The literary device requires every element in a narrative to be necessary and irreplaceable, and that everything else should be removed. In a letter to playwright Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev, Chekhov wrote: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”
This concept is fleshed out a bit in Memoirs, in which S. Shchukin quotes Chekhov as saying this: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Chekhov also wrote letters of advice and encouragement to other writers. To Maxim Gorky, founder of the Socialist realism literary method:
“You ask what is my opinion of your stories. My opinion? The talent is unmistakable and it is a real, great talent. For instance, in the story “In the Steppe,” it is expressed with extraordinary vigour, and I actually felt a pang of envy that it was not I who had written it. You are an artist, a clever man, you feel superbly, you are plastic—that is, when you describe a thing, you see it and you touch it with your hands. That is real art.
There is my opinion for you, and I am very glad I can express it to you. I am, I repeat, very glad, and if we could meet and talk for an hour or two you would be convinced of my high appreciation of you and of the hopes I am building on your gifts.
Shall I speak now of defects? But that is not so easy. To speak of the defects of a talent is like speaking of the defects of a great tree growing in the garden; what is chiefly in question, you see, is not the tree itself but the tastes of the man who is looking at it. Is not that so?
I will begin by saying that to my mind you have not enough restraint. You are like a spectator at the theatre who expresses his transports with so little restraint that he prevents himself and other people from listening. This lack of restraint is particularly felt in the descriptions of nature with which you interrupt your dialogues; when one reads those descriptions one wishes they were more compact, shorter, put into two or three lines.”
In an April 11, 1889 letter to his brother Alexander, also a writer, Chekhov advised:
“Try to be original in your play and as clever as possible; but don’t be afraid to show yourself foolish; we must have freedom of thinking, and only he is an emancipated thinker who is not afraid to write foolish things. Don’t round things out, don’t polish–but be awkward and impudent. Brevity is the sister of talent. Remember, by the way, that declarations of love, the infidelity of husbands and wives; widows’, orphans’, and all other tears, have long since been written up. The subject ought to be new, but there need be no “fable.” And the main thing is–father and mother must eat. Write. Flies purify the air, and plays–the morals.”
In a letter to his friend and publisher Alexei Suvorin in 1890, Chekhov expressed his distaste for conventional writing:
“You abuse me for objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, lack of ideals and ideas, and so on. You would have me, when I describe horse-stealers, say: “Stealing horses is an evil.” But that has been known for ages without my saying so. Let the jury judge them, it’s my job simply to show what sort of people they are. I write: you are dealing with horse-stealers, so let me tell you that they are not beggars but well-fed people, that they are people of a special cult, and that horse-stealing is not simply theft but a passion. Of course it would be pleasant to combine art with a sermon, but for me personally it is extremely difficult and almost impossible, owing to the conditions of technique. You see, to depict horse-stealers in seven hundred lines I must all the time speak and think in their tone and feel in their spirit, otherwise, if I introduce subjectivity, the image becomes blurred and the story will not be as compact as all short stories ought to be. When I write I reckon entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.”
– Divya Mangwani