Last Saturday I spent the day with Chekhov. I don’t know how many of you notice what I’m reading on the sidebar, but it seemed to me that I’d been reading this small old-fashioned-looking book–A Doctor’s Visit: Short Stories–for quite a long time. I started it before I left for Colorado on September 5th but read none of it while I was gone because I was busy reading manuscripts.
On the “what i’m reading now” Page (on which, as of today, I will add the day I start the book), I was surprised to read what I’d written about this collection, “I’ve read a little Chekhov here and there, but I want to spend some time with these stories–really get to know them.” That’s what Saturday felt like, when I decided to “buckle down,” as my mother would say, and finish these stories.
In his forty-four years, Anton Chekhov wrote over 200 stories (as well as plays). This particular volume, with an introduction by Tobias Wolff, was recommended by my adviser David Jauss. You will find “Neighbors,” “A Gentleman Friend,” “The Bishop,” “A Doctor’s Visit,” “Gusev,” The Lady with the Pet Dog,” “Gooseberries,” and “About Love” as well as five different translators, among its nineteen stories.
In “The Legacy of Anton Chekhov: What it Means to say ‘Chekhovian’ & Why his Stories still Serve as a Blueprint for the Stories we Write Now,” (The Writer’s Chronicle, Vol. 42 No. 3, 24-34) Rick Reiken writes:
The simple answer to this question is that Chekhov, a practicing physician and playwright, more or less invented what we in the U.S. have come to understand as the conventions of character-driven literary short fiction.
On Saturday, not only did I finish the collection but I also wrote a rough draft of my essay for my next packet. I knew I wanted to write on some aspect of these stories, but I struggled a bit with which one. In the end I chose to write about the preponderance of words telling rather than showing emotion. I reread. I circled words. I compiled lists.
While counting terms in “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” I had to restart a number of times. One of its passages articulates so beautifully the difference between the various lives we live that I would get lost in it every time and forget to scan for telling emotional terms (none in it, as it turns out):
He had two lives: an open one, seen and known by all who needed to know it, full of conventional truth and conventional falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life that went on in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental combination of circumstances, everything that was essential to him, everything about which he felt sincerely and did not deceive himself, everything that constituted the core of his life was going on concealed from others; while all that was false, the shell of which he hid to cover the truth–his work at the bank, for instance…–all that went on in the open. Judging others by himself, he did not believe what he saw, and always fancied that every man led his real, most interesting life under cover of secrecy as under cover of night.
On Sunday when I was reading Francine Prose’s review of Yiyun Li’s new collection, I ran into Chekhov again:
…Nabakov’s description of Chekhov’s narrative style: “The story is told in the most natural way possible…the way one person relates to another the most important things in his life, slowly and yet without a break, in a slightly subdued voice.” As with reading Chekhov, one is struck by how profoundly important the lives of ordinary people are made to seem, and by what a sizable chunk of existence–an entire life or several lives–has been compressed into a few pages.
Chekhov. Highly recommend.
A stilt house off the shore of Miami is a wondrous and fragile thing, built against all odds of survival. As is a marriage. Although we know that nothing lasts forever, still we hope that some things will. Stiltsville, the debut novel by Susanna Daniel, is straightforward and unsurprising, and each day that I was reading it, I could not wait to return to it.
There was nothing there but sea and sky, but then a few matchbox shapes formed on the hazy horizon. They grew larger and I saw that they were houses, propped above the water on pilings.
In The New York Times “Sunday Book Review,” with a very cool cover by Maira Kalman, James Collins wrote the essay at the back, “The Plot Escapes Me,” on whether there’s a point to reading books when we can’t remember what’s in them. Although I do have difficulty remembering what I read, I admit this is a question I’ve never asked myself.
He consulted Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain“(which I just ordered).
I recommend the essay, but we’re all busy. In what I consider to be the bottom line, Ms. Wolf said:
I totally believe that you are a different person for having read that book…I say that as a neuroscientist and an old literature major.
It is in some way working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it.
It’s there…You are the sum of it all.
I wanted to spread the good news. Keep reading.
Vacation to Life. Suitcase to drawers. Behind to behind-er.
Last week in Colorado, I received stacks of marked-up manuscripts from my writing group. Plus my adviser returned my packet with wonderful annotations on two stories. Where to begin?
I need new running shoes, an idea for supper, birthday gifts, to turn in a housing form. I wrote a friend yesterday that I seemed to be proceeding helter-skelter, with no plan in sight, that I needed a priority list–number one: pay tuition so son can return to college.
One thing from each: Read for thirty minutes. Write for thirty minutes. Creep along Moses, Moses… Read one blog post. Review one stack of notes. Answer one email. Make one phone call. Write one letter. Review the notes on one manuscript. Place one clean shirt into a drawer. Trying to cross the Red Sea…
Well, it’s Saturday, the last day the ten of us will be together at Pam Houston‘s ranch in Creede, Colorado. Lots of reading and little extra time. Our next meeting will be seven days instead of six.
I’m up early to finish reading manuscripts. Two stories this morning then a phone conference on two stories this afternoon. Last night, after Greg and Tina opened on electric guitars, Pam read the amazing end of the book she’s just finished. We’ve been hearing sections for a while, but no one had heard the end. Wow. Now the waiting until we can hold the book in our hands and read it over and over again.
It was a quick week. Welcome dinner Monday night. Two manuscripts on Tuesday with a talk on language–the beauty of sentences–that afternoon by Greg Glazner. Then back for the best salmon I’ve ever tasted. Tuesday, three novel excerpts, then that evening, a reading by Summer Wood from her soon-to-be published novel Wrecker, as well as a reading by Greg from his book in progress.
Thursday we left papers behind and hiked in Phoenix Park up to the waterfall. It was a stunningly beautiful day with a bright blue sky and shimmering aspens everywhere–quakies. Lunch outside at Kip’s. And then the Saints game–party courtesy of our New Orleans writer, Karen, including seven-layer dip, a jersey, and a particularly good photo of Jeremy Shockey.
Yesterday, four stories, a pasture walk, and then a novel excerpt bring us to our wonderful evening last night. After today’s work, it will be dinner and a play in town.
I’ll be up at 5:30 in the morning for my drive back to real life.
Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Louise W. Knight:
Today I’m dealing with lists. I have my List of Book Events, and under each date, a list of things I must not forget to do: buy plane ticket, let my host know when my train arrives, find a place to stay on October 5th in New York City, send the book festival organizer a blog post of 350 words…. And I have my List of Urgent Tasks: add the chronology of Addams’s life to my author website, revise the Wikipedia entry for Jane Addams (it is full of errors), write my next talk about Addams and the history of women’s suffrage. I do this list work at my consulting desk, with my laptop. It’s where I engage the executive part of my brain — where I earn my living working with nonprofits and foundations, manage life’s pesky details, and, at the moment, organize my book tour. In this space, with its big, white door-table, and many file cabinets, I make quick decisions and act on them through emails and phone calls.
But where I long to be is sitting at my other computer in another corner of my study. It’s your basic machine, with a big monitor that sits on a glass-topped desk that has a built-in tray for the keyboard. This workplace, which is where I wrote my book, is nearly encircled by bookcases, a blank wall, which the computer faces, and, to the right, above an oak table, a window. I placed a curtain rod between two bookcases and hung a curtain behind me, and, voila – my writing cubicle. There is something about writing in this enclosed space, lined with books, that helps me concentrate, but it is not only that. For me, entering this space means entering the portion of my mind that writes. It is a deep, creative place that I have to inhabit fully to write a book; this cozy corner helps me get there.
And the reverse is also true. When I leave the corner and pass through the curtain, usually around noon, I leave that part of my mind and that feels good too. My creative brain goes dormant, out of sight, out of mind, until I go back behind the curtain the next morning.
Now, so soon before my book comes out, I’m not writing a book in my corner, but other things, like book talks and book reviews. I just finished and sent off yesterday a review about two new books on feminist intellectual Charlotte Perkins Gilman for the Women’s Review of Books. I was able to immerse myself in Gilman’s world for a while. I enjoyed it, although I also suffered from the handicap I suppose all biographers suffer from when reading other biographies – the desire to try my hand at shaping the life myself. Not an option, I told my creative brain as it tried to take over.
My creative brain is feeling a bit thwarted I guess because I’m spending so much time at my laptop, trying to figure out the logistics of speaking and travel. I don’t think I have ever had as crazy a two-month (now stretching into a three-month) period in my life as that which is coming up. The fretting has begun. What will I forget to take? Should I pack all my vitamins and mineral pills in little daily packets for the whole two months, since I probably won’t have time later? I started this morning making a list of such tasks to do ahead. What about my bills? Maybe I should switch to online payments so I don’t miss one. And I’m trying to start using my new smart-phone, with its digital calendar. Help! What if I screw up? I know I’m going to end up carrying around printed versions of my schedule, like a Linus blanket, because I will not be sure I can rely on the phone.
But part of me is also excited. Contact with readers at last! Though I am stuck today at my laptop, fussing with lists, I will soon go out into the world, to talk with people who are interested in what I wrote behind the curtain. Hello to all you readers out there! Let me know what you think!
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- I would have to say The Feminist Promise by Christine Stansell (Modern Library, 2010), which I chose because of my interest in women’s history. If you are curious to know what came before the Second Wave of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s as well as to understand the Second Wave and what has come after, then this beautifully and intelligently written book, which covers the history of American feminism from 1792 to the present, is the one for you.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Edit your writing with generous, experimental abandon. Most of us are too careful when we edit, weighing each removal with intense scrutiny. Loosen up. You can always put whatever you take out back in. But I find I almost never do.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- I cover the flyleaves and all available front and back blank pages of a nonfiction book with notes and page numbers while I am reading. I am re-indexing the book so I can take proper notes or find what I want later. Publishers who skimp on blank pages and put art on the flyleaves create big problems for me.
Books By Louise W. Knight: