writing advice from doctor chekhov


“it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as the existence of God, pessimism, etc.”



“Witness, Don’t Judge”


Letter to Alexei Suvorin, Sumy, May 30, 1888


In my opinion, it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as the existence of God, pessimism, etc. The job of the artist is only to record who under which circumstances said or thought what about God or pessimism. The artist must not judge his characters or their words; he must only be an impartial witness. I overhear two Russians carry on a muddled, inconclusive discussion on pessimism; I am duty bound to transmit this conversation exactly as I heard it. Evaluating it is a job for the jury, that is, for the reader. My job demands only one thing of me: to be talented, that is, to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant evidence; to illuminate characters, and to speak in their language. Shcheglov-Leontyev criticizes me for ending one of my stories with the sentence, “You can’t really explain why things happen in this world.” In his opinion, the writer who is a psychologist must explain, otherwise he has no right to call himself a psychologist. I disagree. It is high time for writers—and especially for true artists—to admit that it is impossible to explain anything. Socrates acknowledged this long ago, as did Voltaire. Only the crowd thinks it knows and understands everything there is to know and understand. And the more stupid it is, the more open-minded it thinks itself to be. But if an artist whom the crowd trusts admits that he understands nothing of what he sees, this fact alone will make a great contribution to the realm of thought and will mark a great step forward.



—from How to Write Like Chekhov: Advice and Inspiration, Straight From His Own Letters and Work. Edited and introduced by Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek; translated from the Russian and Italian by Lena Lencek. 1st Da Capo Press edition, 2008.





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