Monday, December 25, 2006


Once, when someone asked him his method of composition, Chekhov picked up an ashtray. "This is my method of composition," he said. "Tomorrow I will write a story called "The Ashtray."

This blog is called "Throughlines" for a reason. For as long as I have been keeping a commonplace book—a practice that has now been ongoing, in one form or another, for something like 40 years—I have in some cases sensed certain threads of connection which have run through the various entries and which taken together have woven at least some of the fabric of my identity: who I am as a teacher an writer and thinker and parent and free agent (or more often not-so-free agent) in the world at large. Sometimes these threads of connection need to be sought out; at other times they seem to push themselves forward.

Last Thursday I started Francine Prose's new book Reading as a Writer. Friday morning I woke up and decided to take the long walk down Ke'eaumoku Street, which runs from our neighborhood in a straight line all the way to Ala Moana Shopping Center. On a good day I could drive there in ten minutes, but on the Friday before Christmas I knew the roads would be choked with cars, so I decided to walk and bring my camera with me. Since I've recently started taking pictures again, I thought I might attempt a sort of photo essay about the Things You See on Ke'eaumoku Street. I had in mind attempting to put together a set of photos of ordinary things and ordinary places that on a regular day I might not even notice, much less select as the subject of a picture.

By the time I got home from my walk, my back had tightened up, and by the end of the day I was unable to stand or sit comfortably. So, as I mentioned in yesterday's post, I decided to go online and, since a colleague had recently given me an iTunes gift certificate, download an audiobook. I looked at my choices and decided to download a collection of Chekhov's stories. I listened to several of those, and then opened Reading as a Writer again and noticed that Chapter Ten is entitled "Learning from Chekhov." So I started reading that as a kind of counterpoint to my listening to my audiobook.

Francine Prose begins the essay by explaining the circumstance in which she began reading Chekhov on the two and a half hour bus ride home from her teaching job, as a kind of "ritual and reward" in her life at that time. She describes the interplay her teaching and her reading, and particularly how often she would find whatever she had just told her students about the process of writing convincingly refuted by the next story she picked up by Chekhov. For example, she cites a passage from the ending of the story "Volodya" in which the main character suddenly and with no explanation puts a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. She comments:

As anyone who has ever attended a writing class knows, the bottom line of the fiction workshop is motivation. We complain, we criticize, we say that we don't understand why this or that character says or does something. Like Method actors, we ask: What is the motivation? Of course, all this is based on the comforting supposition that things, in fiction as in life, are done for a reason. But here was Chekhov telling us that, as we may have noticed, people often do terrible things for no good reason at all.

After giving several other examples of this kind, she says that as a result of her sustained reading of Chekhov she "had been challenged, not only in my more flippant statements about fiction but also in my most basic assumptions about life."

I think I have always been suspicious of received wisdom, of dogma, of dead certainties. Over the desk of the vice-principal of my school is posted a quotation from Eric Sevareid which reads, "One asks not only for the courage of his convictions, but for the courage of his doubts, in a world of dangerously passionate certainties." I wrote it down in my notebook the first time I saw it, and later posted it here, as the footer on my home page, to serve as reminder—and a kind of cautionary note—to myself. So it was satisfying to see Francine Prose, in her essay, quoting one of Chekhov's letters to more or less the same effect:

It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything. The stupider they are, they wider they conceive their horizons to be. And if an artists decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.

Later, she cites a line from one of Nabokov's lectures on Chekhov, where he says, "We feel that for Chekhov the lofty and the base are not different, that the slice of watermelon and the violet sea and the hands of the town governor are essential points of the beauty plus pity of the world." That struck a chord as well. It seems an analogue to the previous point: if we do not know where the answers lie, we may perhaps be able to find our way towards them by paying attention even to the least important things: the watermelon slice, the ashtray.

The last words of Francine Prose's chapter on Chekhov are these:

Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through. Admit that you understand nothing of life, nothing of what you see. Then go out and look at the world.

Which brings us back to these pictures from my walk on Ke'eaumoku Street. I know that probably no one of these pictures is of any particular artistic or compositional merit. But my intention was to be in the world, and to use the camera as a way of looking at it. The pictures are one thread among the throughlines I have been trying to weave together here—throughlines of reading and writing and looking and thinking—and so I share them here, in the spirit that Francine Prose endorses in the work of Chekhov, as artifacts of a certain line of inquiry, and of a certain kind of celebration.

(To see the complete set of photos of Ke'eaumoku Street, click here.)

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