For Chekhov, it was as easy as eating pancakes

Saturday afternoon I sit at the living-room table to write, but on what subject? Nothing comes to mind. Unlike Herman Melville, I have no "condor's quill" at the ready, no "Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand."

As a young man, Anton Chekhov wrote serenely, "just the way I eat pancakes." In his short stories, he portrayed less successful writers, like the one advised by his editor to save on postage by not submitting further drivel. Or the aspiring writer who decided to retire upon receiving his 1,000th rejection note.

It was not all peaches and cream for Chekhov. He, too, received rejection notes. Like this one: "A few witty words cannot obliterate such woefully insipid verbiage."

Writing is not easy. Listen to Gustave Flaubert on the subject: "Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity." (From "Madame Bovary," 1857.)

The best writers experience difficulties. Here, in his journal of 1855, Thoreau evaluates his work: "Playing with words, – getting the laugh, – not always simple, strong, and broad."

As a young man, Chekhov defined his aesthetic tenets: "(1) absolute objectivity; (2) truth in the description of people and things; (3) maximum brevity; (4) boldness and originality; (5) compassion."

This is Walt Whitman's advice to himself as he prepared the second edition of "Leaves of Grass": "Make no puns/ funny remarks/ Double entendres/ 'witty' remarks/ ironies/ Sarcasms/ Only that which/ is simply earnest/ meant, – harmless/ to any one's feelings/ – unadorned/ unvarnished...."

Informed by these writers, and their biographers ("Chekhov" by Henri Troyat, "The Days of Henry Thoreau," by Walter Harding, and Justin Kaplan's "Walt Whitman, a Life"), I reach for pen and paper, ready to try again.

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