Tag Archives: Anton Chekhov

Inspirations from a Quilt

What could be more soothing than the sound of the washing machine churning, churning, washing away….my dog’s tail thudding against the wall when he hears me walk back into the room…wind chimes, almost from another world, clanging in a gentle morning wind….and the touch of a new quilt, softened by the work and care of a dear friend.

Tquilt.jpgoday I reflect back on yesterday’s visit from my beloved writing friends Mary and Ruth, who came for lunch but brought a cornucopia of my favorite things  — a book of stories from Shirley Jackson, articles, their own precious stories, clean jars ready for canning, and the highlight– a beautiful quilt designed and hand-stitched by Mary herself.

I’m still both awed and humbled. It’s made from squares of heathered purple and accented with strips of beautiful complementary fabrics, modern and traditional with botanical accents. Each of the purple squares is accented with four French knots, which reminds me of my mother, who used to crewel and first showed me that stitch. Mary says the quilt is a marquis-inspired pattern and it is truly unique and something I will cherish to the end of my days.

Twenty-three days into May, and with 23 draft stories under my belt, I’m over the hump but I’m grateful for the inspiration and sustenance of the idea of a quilt. What powers our stories could be considered a “virtual quilt” of its own — memories, scraps of conversation, images, noble truths. What holds the quilt together is that dynamic, fluid, yet mysterious force of imagination. Your imagination will be there in the beginning, during the heady flush of a new idea — and it will also be there as you revise, in the days before a story truly comes to life.

Not all drafts are equal but I’m hopeful that I’ll end up with at least 10 viable drafts to revise throughout the year. More importantly, however, I hope to reinforce enough good habits to last a lifetime. As a reward, I plan to splurge on the last book of stories by William Trevor, a man who might indeed be the heir to our Chekhov. In the meantime, my new quilt and memories of yesterday shall guide my boat.

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Ode to the Exclamation Mark!

images-2In my studies of famous authors—most recently Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway—I’ve taken a delightful detour into Anton Chekhov, whom I’ll write about more later. Author of hundreds of short stories and several celebrated plays, this physician-humanitarian-author is most known for his ability to weave unforgettable tales of average people. He doesn’t moralize or aim to instruct yet…when you finish one of his stories, you emerge with a new appreciation of humanity.

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a book of early Chekhov tales titled The Exclamation Mark! Curiously, we have had many discussions at work about this seemingly overused mark of punctuation at work, in email, Twitter, etc. And now this gem of a book suddenly turns up. The title tale is the comic story (told at Christmas no less) of a civil servant who realizes that he has never used the exclamation mark.  He is later haunted by this mark, as it comes to represent exultation, indignation, anger and joy. What has he been missing out on all these years?

My friend Melissa (and Russian literature expert) reminds me that the exclamation mark is not commonly used by these authors. We read this tale at lunch today (it’s only about 4 pages) and then passed it to a friend. All being “civil servants,” we three rejoiced in our own mixed feelings about work (the general) and the exclamation mark (the particular).

And tonight I’m also reminded of the famously introverted Nathaniel Hawthorne’s generous use of this mark in The House of Seven Gables. But that will be another post. Literature is the perfect place for paradox.

The Turning Point

I’ve blogged before about the key elements of a novel.  Tonight I’d like to touch on the short story. For its brevity and eloquence, it’s one of my favorite forms, both to read and to write. Some of the world’s best-known novelists continue to experiment with this short form and for good reason. She’s a tough and relentless mistress, but once a writer succeeds with one, he feels as if the curtain separating us from the divine has parted just for a moment. That all-too brief glimpse is a wonderful and terrible moment because once you have experienced it you are forever trying to capture it again. The rewards for the reader run in parallel. The curtain parts and for the briefest of moments we are in sympathy with each other.

What makes a great short story? As much as I enjoy them, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve studied enough of the classics to know, however, that these masterpieces share something. They all have a major turning point for the principal character. The point at which this character realizes that their world will never been the same. Novels may have multiple turning points but short stories only have room for one. The author, and Flannery O’Connor is the best at this, may hint at the turning point, but it is up to the reader to figure out just when it actually happens.

In a “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” we know that the grandmother is malicious and scheming. We know that she has misled her family into veering off the main highway and causes them to fall into the hands of the notorious criminal, the Misfit. The turning point for the grandmother is the point when she lays eyes upon the Misfit. “His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was.” And while later in the story, she will ask the Misfit to pray, she will touch him, call him one of her “babies,” and ultimately be shot by him, for me this first moment of recognition is what sets the wheels in motion for the grandmother.

Another example is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace.” In it, this master of the short story also foreshadows the end of Southern belle Sally Carrol’s engagement to northerner Harry Bellamy. The moment that it ends for Sally Carrol, however, is the moment she finds herself lost in a palace built of ice. “It was an icy breath of death; it was rolling down low across the land to clutch at her.” At that point, you know, you just know that she will not marry Harry and that she will happily return to the Southern “boys” that were beneath her before. And when she does, for the reader, there is that delicious little tickle in the pit of your stomach that tells you that you were right!

One story that I will also love forever is Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog.” And not just because I have a little white spitz, and not just because of the main character’s ironic observations about the people around him, but because of the way Gurov describes the moment he knows that this love affair will be different. “Anna Sergeevna looked at the ship and the passengers through her lorgnette, as if searching for acquaintances, and when she turned to Gurov, her eyes shone.” I’m sure this is even more beautiful in Russian, but for me it’s indelibly lyrical in English.  If you have never read this story, you simply must. The ending paragraph is one of the most exquisite of all short stories, even rivaling O’Connor’s fabled (and very different) ending of “A Good Man.”

There are many other key parts of a good story: unforgettable characters, pivotal scenes, and a strong sense of place, but what brings them all together for me is that turning point. I’ve been told several times by good writers that “there’s no money in short stories.” Perhaps that’s true, but the rewards of writing them are endless and lead to the kind of skills that will help you write longer works. So, if you’re like me, who’s working my way through two short stories (not to mention the sequel to my novel), take some time to read over your favorite short stories and identify that crucial turning point. But beware. It’s the moment where your world may also change forever.