What We Talk About When We Talk About Anton Chekhov (1/29/1860) - His 5-Point Checklist for Creating Great Stories
Many decades before Kathy Bates tormented James Caan in the film version of Stephen King's Misery, Anton Chekhov wrote a far more touching story by the same title. Stephen King's Misery had to do with his addiction to drugs, with the Kathy Bates character demonstrating in fictional terms the writer's punishing relationship to his tormentor. In all likelihood, Chekhov's "Misery" will never make it to anyone's list of scary thrillers. And yet, there is something frightening and sad about the story of a lonely man ( a kind of cab driver) who has sustained a great loss no one wants to hear about. I once asked a professor why this was considered a great story. "Because it makes you cry," she said.
Chekhov's stories don't make a lot of noise - except of course when someone fires a gun. They reach down into the quiet, sad places of the human heart and show you what's lurking there. They look at longing, loss, anticipation and failed ambition. The real stuff of everyday life.
Although he would eventually abandon writing for the theater, Chekhov's collaboration with Stanislavsky yielded a five-point checklist every storyteller should know.
For every character in the story, you must show the following:
It's been quite a while since I've wondered why Chekhov's stories are great. If you read them, you find out why. If you are Raymond Carver, you read them, love them, imitate them. And when you die, newspapers around the world will refer to you as the American Chekhov.
I love Chekhov's "Lady with the Pet Dog." Also his plays, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Seagull.
I also love the fact that Chekhov represents a kind of ideal: the poet-scientist. He was a young medical student who started writing stories to support himself through school. Although he became world famous, he continued to practice medicine. He had a dual calling, and he answered both exceedingly well, treating wounded soldiers right up to his death in 1904. As another of my professors once said, "One would like to be like Chekhov."
Here's a Storify slide-show presentation that shows why. There are some good bits here, which include Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, and Laurence Olivier. If you don't know Chekhov's "Misery," Kenneth Branagh's reading (also here) is a fine way to get acquainted.
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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