What Do I Write About?
  • Anton Chekhov answered that question this way:

    You could write a story about this ashtray, and a man and a woman. The man and the woman are always the two poles of your story. The North Pole and the South. Every story has these two poles — a he and she.

    The late Raymond Carver, who worshiped at the shrine of Anton Chekhov, undertook Chekhov’s challenge, and here’s what Ray Carver came up with:

    They’re alone at the kitchen table in her friend’s
    apartment. They’ll be alone for another hour, and then
    her friend will be back. Outside, it’s raining –
    the rain coming down like needles, melting last week’s
    snow. They’re smoking and using the ashtray. . . Maybe
    just one of them is smoking . . . He’s smoking! Never
    mind. Anyway, the ashtray is filling up with
    cigarettes and ashes.

    She’s ready to break into tears at any minute.
    To plead with him, in fact, though she’s proud
    And has never asked for anything in her life.
    He sees what’s coming, recognizes the signs –
    a catch in her voice as she brings her fingers
    to her locket, the one her mother left her.
    He pushes back his chair, gets up, goes over to
    the window . . . He wishes it were tomorrow and he
    were at the races. He wishes he was out walking,
    using his umbrella . . . He strokes his mustache
    and wishes he were anywhere except here. But
    he doesn’t have and choice in the matter. He’s got
    to put a good face on this for everybody’s sake.
    God knows, he never meant for things to come
    to this. But it’s sink or swim now. A wrong
    move and he stands to lose her friend, too.

    Her breathing slows. She watches him but
    doesn’t say anything. She knows, or thinks she
    knows, where this is leading. She passes a hand
    over her eyes, leans forward and puts her head
    in her hands. She’s done this a few times
    before, but has no idea it’s something
    that drives him wild. He looks away and grinds
    his teeth. He lights a cigarette, shakes out
    the match, stands a minute longer at the window.

    Then walks back to the table and sits
    down with a sigh. He drops the match in the ashtray.
    She reaches for his hand, and he lets her
    take it. Why not? Where’s the harm?
    Let her. His mind’s made up. She covers his
    fingers with kisses, tears fall on to his wrist.

    He draws on his cigarette and looks at her
    as a man would look indifferently on
    a cloud, a tree, or a field of oats at sunset.
    He narrows his eyes against the smoke. From time
    to time he uses the ashtray as he waits
    for her to finish weeping.


    Raymond Carver (RIP)

    The first thing you’ll no doubt have noticed about this piece is that it’s well written and poignant.

    The second thing you’ll have noticed is that it’s not so much a story as it is a poem — specifically, a narrative poem. I chose it here, along with Chekhov’s semi-famous quote, because it illustrates an important point: namely, conflict is the crux of storytelling.

    If you don’t have a sufficiently complicated conflict, you won’t have enough material for a story. That, I believe, is what happened here.

    Chekhov’s suggestion — which is his version of what we call a Situation — isn’t complex enough to build a story upon. One would need more adversity — more obstacle — to launch a truly compelling story.

    Plots derive from characters under adversity.

    But it’s important to emphasize that adversity need not be expressed in terms of pure physical action. Adversity means conflict. That conflict can be psychological, emotional, physical, or all three.

    Here is an example of how we might improve Chekhov’s situation:

    You could write a story about this ashtray, which is heart-shaped and has a hairline crack down the center, and a man and a woman, who does not love the man, though she’s married to him, and though he loves her …

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The sawed-off shotgun of literary pulp.

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