How Not to Write: Lessons from Chekhov

Many of the booby traps of writing are set by your own ego. A writer must be motivated but not maniacal. Critical enough to make sure your work isn’t absolute pants, but cheery enough to convince yourself not to chuck it straight in the bin either.

Take Chekhov. In his short stories, The Black Monk and Talent, he delves into the effects of ego.

Both stories tell of the thin line writers must tread between fantasy and fanaticism; one shows the effects of illusion and the other, self-delusion. Both are equally disastrous. An artist can’t do without one (illusion), but must avoid the other (self-delusion) like the plague. So how can we avoid falling victim to our own fancies?

In The Black Monk, a professor on sabbatical sees an apparition of a 1,000 year-old monk clothed in black he knows from folklore, and takes him as an advisor (as you do). Far from troubled, Kovrin is beside himself with joy, because his sightings of the monk are accompanied by a frenzy of productivity at his desk. As far as he’s concerned, his visions and his productivity go hand in hand. Understandably, he thinks it better to give the question of his potential lunacy a bit of a wide berth for the time being. He’s too chuffed with his output to care.

Only when his new wife sees him talking to himself and makes him get treatment, does the penny drop for Kovrin that it might not be normal to shoot the breeze with a hallucination.

“You are a phantom, an hallucination. So I am mentally deranged, not normal?… If I know I am mentally affected, can I trust myself?” etc., etc.

He allows his family and doctors – who are all suitably alarmed – to intervene, but the black monk won’t go quietly.

“And are you sure that the men of genius, whom all men trust, did not see phantoms, too? The learned say now that genius is allied to madness. My friend, healthy and normal people are only the common herd.”

The black monk has nothing but disdain for people he rather rudely refers to as ‘the common herd’:

“Exaltation, enthusiasm, ecstasy–all that distinguishes prophets, poets, martyrs for the idea, from the common folk–is repellent to the animal side of man–that is, his physical health. I repeat, if you want to be healthy and normal, go to the common herd.”

Kovrin is none too pleased with the ‘treatment’, which seems to involve more treating him like an invalid/wayward madman than hailing him as the anointed genius. Shortly before his death, he laments:

“Why, why have you cured me? Preparations of bromide, idleness, hot baths, supervision … all this will reduce me at last to idiocy. I went out of my mind, I had megalomania; but then I was cheerful, confident, and even happy; I was interesting and original. Now I have become … just like everyone else: I am—mediocrity… Oh, how cruelly you have treated me! . . . I saw hallucinations, but what harm did that do to anyone?”

It’s uncertainty, after all, which does him in; not the monk, not insanity. It’s his choice to indulge the concerns of his family, and inability to commit to the black monk’s wisdom, which spells the end of his creativity, and – somewhat melodramatically – his life. His self-doubt has censored his work, that much is safe to say.

Essentially, Chekhov’s message seems to be: if you’re going to do something wrong, do it right. If you’re going lose the plot, make sure you never find it again. A certain amount of crazy in a writer is not just forgivable; it’s positively encouraged. The Black Monk is as much about the dangers of darting glances back to reality, as it is about the power of illusion.

In Talent, on the other hand, the artist in question is excessively pleased with himself. So pleased with himself, in fact, that he doesn’t feel the need to actually do any painting.

A complacent ‘artist’ by the name of Yegor Savvitch languishes in the country. He rarely paints, but remains sure that his stardom is only a matter of time. Certain that he’s a budding genius, he’s skipped the part where he actually does any work, in favour of the bit where he reaps the rewards. Chekhov isn’t so sure that’s how it works:

“His fancy pictured how he would become great. He could not imagine his future works but he could see distinctly how the papers would talk of him, how the shops would sell his photographs, with what envy his friends would look after him.”

Then his friends, who are also mooching about in the country, come and join the party:

“they were all bound by the inexorable law by which of a hundred promising beginners only two or three rise to any position and all the others draw blanks in the lottery, perish playing the part of flesh for the cannon. . . . They were gay and happy, and looked the future boldly in the face!”

By indulging the whisper of his ego – that he’s already already a genius, that he’s the exception to the rule – Yegor short-circuits his own dream. The artist fails to censor his own ego, and the result is equally catastrophic. Yegor indulged that voice, whereas Kovrin censored it. So the artist is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

A balance must be struck: artistic, (and in Kovrin’s case, physical) ruin lie on either side of Chekhov’s spectrum.

2 responses to “How Not to Write: Lessons from Chekhov

  1. Pingback: Anton Chekhov: Bio in Brief | Tolstoy Stole My Title·

  2. Pingback: Anton Chekhov: Bio in Brief | A Word Child·

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