When One Has Finished Writing a Short Story One Should Delete the Beginning and the End

Anton Chekhov? Ivan Bunin? André Maurois? Paul Engle? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A famous author offered the following astonishing advice: After completing a story one should cross out the beginning and the end.

This guidance has been attributed to the prominent Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The Russian writer Ivan Bunin won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933. An English translation of his book Воспоминания appeared in 1951 under the title “Memories and Portraits”. One chapter discussed Anton Chekhov who Bunin initially met in Moscow at the end of 1895. Ellipses appeared in the 1951 text. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

A few characteristic phrases of his have remained fixed in my memory to this day. “Do you write a lot?” he asked me. I replied that I did not. “What a shame,” he said glumly, in his deep chest voice. “You must work, you know. You must work without stopping. . . . All your life.”

Then, after a pause, he added without any apparent connection: “I think that when one has finished writing a short story one should delete the beginning and the end. That’s where we fiction writers mostly go wrong. And one should be brief, as brief as possible. . . .”

The dialog above was based on conversations that occurred many years before Ivan Bunin published his book. Hence, the veracity of his memory was crucial.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1957 the French literary figure André Maurois published “Lecture, mon doux plaisir” which appeared in English in 1960 under the title “The Art of Writing”. Maurois included a chapter called “The Art and the Philosophy of Anton Tchekov” which employed a different spelling for Chekhov. Maurois (and his English translator Gerard Hopkins) presented an alternative rendering for the passage above: 2

To Bunin he said: “One has got to work, you know . . . without pause or rest… all one’s life long.” Then, after a moment’s silence: “My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying . . . . A piece of writing should be short, as short as possible.”

The statement about “lying” diverged from the previous translation. QI has not seen Bunin’s original Russian text; hence, QI cannot judge the fidelity of these two renderings.

Another chapter of Maurois’ book was titled “The Writer’s Craft”. He mentioned an unnamed Scottish professor together with one of the lines from Chekhov. Maurois endorsed the viewpoint about editing: 3

The first thing that a certain Scots professor used to say to his students when they handed in their essays was: “Did it never occur to you to tear up the first page?” Without reading it, he could guess that it was bad, because beginnings are the most difficult things to manage successfully. “It is there”, said Tchekov, “that we do most of our lying.”  . . .

The Scots professor was right. It is an admirable rule to “cut” the first page which is almost certain to be groping, slow and didactic, as well as wholly unnecessary for the intelligent reader.

In 1964 Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, published the essay “Salt Crystals, Spider Webs, and Words” in “The Saturday Review” of New York. Engle presented a version of the words of Chekhov: 4

“My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying. . . . One must always tear up the first half. I mean that seriously. Young writers begin by, as one says, ‘placing the story’—whereas the reader ought, on the contrary, to be able to grasp what it is all about by the way it is told, without any explanations from the author . . .”

In 1986 “The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations” included a passage credited to Chekhov that contained his famous remark about a visible gun: 5

My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying . . . one must ruthlessly suppress everything that is not concerned with the subject. If, in the first chapter, you say there is a gun hanging on the wall, you should make quite sure that it is going to be used further on in the story.  Anton Chekhov

In conclusion, Anton Chekhov deserves credit for the remark about deleting the beginning and end of stories based on the testimony of Ivan Bunin in 1951. QI has not yet seen the original Russian statement from Bunin.

Image Notes: Public domain picture of an eraser from Hans Braxmeier at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Dan Powell and Jonathan Taylor whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1951, Memories and Portraits by Ivan Bunin, Translation by Vera Traill and Robin Chancellor, Chapter: Chekhov, Quote Page 31 and 32, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1960, The Art of Writing by André Maurois, Translation by Gerard Hopkins, Chapter 11: The Art and the Philosophy of Anton Tchekov, Quote Page 242 and 243, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1960, The Art of Writing by André Maurois, Translation by Gerard Hopkins, Chapter 1: The Writer’s Craft, Quote Page 21 and 22, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1964 March 14, The Saturday Review, Salt Crystals, Spider Webs, and Words by Paul Engle, Start Page 10, Quote Page 13, Column 1 and 2, The Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  5. 1986, The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations, Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Writers and Writing, Quote Page 390, Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, Toronto. (Verified on paper)