The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Chekhov interrupts my sleep

Rachael Conlin Levy

Before I went to bed, I copied down the following instructions:

Your frequent comparisons to humans (anthropromorphism) — the sea breathes, the sky looks on, the steppe basks in the sun, nature whispers, speaks, weeps and so on — these kind of personifications make your descriptions somewhat monotonous, a touch saccaraine, vague; in descriptions of nature, vibrancy and expressivity are best produced by simple techniques, for example: using simple phrases such as “the sun set,” “it got dark,” “it started to rain” and so on. … Nature appears to be animated if you are not afraid to use comparisons between natural phenomena and human actions.

— “How to Write Like Chekhov: advice and inspiration, straight from his own letters and work,” edited by Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek.

Hours later I woke with ears already tuned and searching for a sound to repeat itself — a fist against a door, a hand against a window — because I’m certain that it was a noise that pulled me from my sleep. I got up, peeked out the window at the street and saw nothing, and then, because I worry over the fate of my children during the night, I went to check on them. The time when my house sleeps is one of my favorites, and I will deny myself rest in order to listen to the quiet created by five others, a silence I can describe only as full and round and warm, so different than the hollowness that inhabits a house when I’m in it alone. I walked upstairs where the air was warmer and sooty, like velvet. I found my two older sons — the first flung across his bed, covers pushed aside because he was too hot in the night, while the second son lay buried in his blankets. Across the hall I found my daughter, head back and mouth slack, her hair covering her face. I went back downstairs and checked on my youngest, who was mounded in his small bed like a turtle tucked into its shell. With everyone having safely made it through the night, the worry that pulled me from my bed was eased, and I took my coffee and writing notebook and sat on the kitchen stoop. The concrete was cold against my feet, and the morning was gray-white. I smelled sea salt in the tiny specks of rain that fell, pricking my neck and dampening the page without leaving water marks. I understood that I was happy.

14 responses to “Chekhov interrupts my sleep”

  1. Rachael says:

    I’m glad you’re happy, too!

  2. Hmmm. Still thinking about this excerpt.

    I like your description of your early morning rounds.

    My dad always woke in the night and looked in on us. I wonder if it had anything to do with all he saw during his years as a Chicago police officer. It is the main reason I never attempted to sneak out of the house when it seemed all of my friends were getting away with such things.

  3. Rachael says:

    I’m intrigued by Chekhov’s suggestion to draw connections between the natural and human, but stopping short of personifying it. As an example, he says you can produce the impression of a moonlit night by writing that the broken bottle glass twinkled like stars and the black shadow of a dog rolled by. This, of course, is different than the first part of his instruction — to just state that the sky was dark.

    Anyway, I tried to do this here, at first struggling with muttering wind, somber clouds and threatening silence, but kept at it and am satisfied with the results — at least satisfied enough to try it again.

  4. anno says:

    Lovely …. and maybe you weren’t thinking about Tolstoy and his snotty dismissal of happy families and how they’re all alike, but what you’ve shown most wonderfully here is that happiness offers writers just as much opportunity — and challenge — as unhappiness ever does.

  5. Beth says:

    But I really enjoy personifying nature. Hmm… something to think about.
    And your words, Rachael, are beautiful. I love the stillness of a home filled with sleeping loved ones, too. It’s magical.

  6. Rachael says:

    As do I, Beth, which is why I tried to restrain myself and see what would I could create, an experiment in less is more.

  7. Rachael says:

    Anno, I agree that happiness can be hard to express, particularly the subtle kind that slides its arms around your waist when you’re looking the other direction, embracing you so gently it can go unnoticed.

  8. Debbie says:

    “…a silence I can describe only as full and round and warm…” I love that. Beautiful writing all around – I think Chekhov would be proud.

  9. Rachael says:

    Debbie, thank you.

  10. Kate says:

    I recognise so much of my nightly routine in your words. More nights than not in a week I’m roused to total wakefulness by a sound that leads me to sit on my son’s bed, soothing my nerves with his sleeping self. I love to think of you in the grey of morning, with notebook and silence and the happiness that comes with safety, normality and a new page.

  11. Rachael says:

    Kate, it’s nice to know I have a companion familiar with such worries and who shares the solace found in a night-time prowl.

  12. Dylan says:

    I like this.

  13. Rachael says:

    Thanks, Dylan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe: rss | email | twitter