Tag Archives: chekhov

First cherries, first lines

cherriesOut of our four young cherry trees, we ended up with just a handful of tart cherries this year. Our Montmorency tree (left), the first one we planted three years ago, yielded the most fruit.

The first line of a story should be as memorable as the taste of a tart cherry–tangy, sweet, then tangy again. It’s almost lemony, but there’s something else–the flavor of early summer, morning breezes, balmy nights, the eerie song of the wood thrush in the hollow.

“One fine evening the no less fine office manager Ivan Dmitrich Cherviakov was sitting in the second row of the stalls, watching The Bells of Corneville through opera glasses.” (Anton Chekhov, The Death of a Clerk)

“Miss Matt was at least partially conscious that she looked like the teacher everyone has had for English in first-year high school; she was small and pretty, in a rice-powder fashion, with a great mass of soft dark hair that tried to stay on top of her head and straggled instead down over her ears; her voice was low and turned pleading instead of sharp; any presentable fourteen-year-old bully could pass her course easily.” (Shirley Jackson, The Sorceror’s Apprentice)

“Hazel Morse was a large, fair woman of the type that incites some men when they use the word ‘blonde’ to click their tongues and wag their heads roguishly.” (Dorothy Parker, Big Blonde)

Does your first sentence sing with vivid language? Mystery and intrigue? Does it draw your reader deeper? As I revise the stories I drafted this past month, I’ll be cognizant of the work of the masters in the first sentences of their stories, as quoted above. There’s a trick here, and these authors do it. That first sentence must hint at the plot and the universal truth (or unique vision) that caused the author to write the story in the first place.

As we approach the end of my story-drafting blitz this month, (three more to go!) I was delighted to receive a note from the editors of  The Birds We Piled Loosely, a hip online literary magazine, that they accepted two of my short humor flashes: “Etymology in the Neighborhood” and “We Are So Very Sorry” for their July issue.

Come to think of it, submitting work for publication is also a bit like growing cherries in the south. It’s unpredictable, a little scary, (will a late frost hurt those flower buds?) but the scarcity makes the few cherries you do harvest that much more delicious. So keep it up…both the cherry growing and submitting!

 

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An Evening with George Saunders!

ImageTonight my friend Nancy and I had the pleasure of meeting George Saunders, National Book Award Finalist, Guggenheim winner, and a regular contributor to The New Yorker. He spoke at Duke University. My head is still swimming with the experience, but I had to share a quick picture and my overall impression of the man who was named by Time magazine as one of the “World’s Most Influential People.”

It’s a rare experience to meet someone so brilliant yet so self-effacing and humble. His wisdom to his fellow writers was simple and pithy. Push yourself over the rapids and don’t shy away from writing about things that trouble you. And there’s nothing wrong with humor in literature! If you’re funny in life, your writing should reflect your personality.

He also spoke of his writing influences, which were esoteric to say the least: Esther Forbes, Monty Python, Chekhov, even the rock group Styx! He and I chatted for a few moments while he signed my copy of Tenth of December about the importance of memory to the writer, and his ability to bring his own characters to life by recalling his own experiences in similar situations. I’ll close by saying that I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life! Thank you Nancy!

P.S. If you haven’t read Tenth of December, his short story collection, I highly recommend it. Try “Victory Lap”, a story he read tonight that is at turns both humorous and gripping.

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.