Anton Chekhov? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I was reading a collection of writing tips designed for neophyte scribblers, and I came across a valuable piece of advice that was attributed to Anton Chekhov:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
I have seen this statement several times before, and I believe it provides excellent direction, but no one states where it originally appeared. Did Chekhov really offer this counsel?
Quote Investigator: QI hypothesizes that this expression was constructed as a summary of the instructions Anton Chekhov gave to his brother in a letter written in 1886. The summary was eventually re-assigned directly to Chekhov. Below is an English language version of a passage from the letter which was originally written in Russian. The translation was performed by Avrahm Yarmolinsky and published in “The Unknown Chekhov” in 1954: 1
In May, 1886, Chekhov wrote to his brother Alexander, who had literary ambitions: “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”
There are crucial points of commonality between this passage and the abbreviated expression. Chekhov suggested using details to communicate the presence of moonlight. Also, the distinctive phrase “broken bottle glittered” was transformed into “glint of light on broken glass” in the summary.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1954, The Unknown Chekhov: Stories and Other Writings Hitherto Untranslated by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Section: Introduction, Start Page 9, Quote Page 14, Noonday Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩