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What Chekov’s dog taught me about purposeful creativity

Updated: Apr 11

“Kashtanka” — Anton Chekov’s short story about a dog with two masters — is a fable about the conundrum of the creative life.

No dedicated student of literature can ignore the Russian writer Anton Chekov. His novels, short stories, and plays have insightfully explored everything from love and regret, to family, politics, education and reform, and his genius as a fiction writer is seldom refuted. I recently read his well-known short story “Kashtanka”, about a dog who experiences life with two very different masters before deciding which one she prefers. The story, published in Russian in 1887, is now a well-known children’s book, and was even made into a Russian TV movie in 1975.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s a summary:

A little female dog named Kashtanka is being taken for a walk by her master –a drunken carpenter. The carpenter, and we learn later his young son too, rough handle Kashtanka, kick her around a lot and give her barely enough food to survive. One day, in the midst of a military parade, Kashtanka is separated from the carpenter. Without an owner, she roams the streets of wintertime Russia freezing, starving and close to death. She is then found by a tubby circus clown who gives her plenty of kindness and things to eat. In the clown’s home are a garrulous, people-pleasing gander, an aloof and morose cat, and an obedient, caged pig. Every day, the amiable and generous clown trains his pets to perform as part of his circus act — an animal pyramid formation. Under the clown’s roof, Kashtanka is well cared for. She has a warm place to sleep, plenty to eat and drink, and animal companions to pass her days with. Kashtanka seems to enjoy her new life, and is pleased that she no longer has to worry about being hungry or smacked around. However, when she sleeps, she has fond dreams of her old family — the carpenter, along with his young son — despite the fact that the boy used to tease her in a “particularly agonizing” way: tying a piece of meat to a thread and feeding it to her, and then, when she had swallowed it, “with a loud laugh, pull it back again from her stomach”. After some time, the clown trains Kashtanka to join the animal pyramid, and training sessions are exhausting but fun. One evening, the gander who was stepped on by a horse earlier in the day, becomes gravely ill. In the night, death enters the clown’s home to claim the gander, and Kashtanka is disturbed by death’s sinister presence. The clown has Kashtanka replace the gander in the circus act, and she assumes her position at the top of the animal pyramid. Her circus debut is a roaring success, and she is thrilled by all the adoration she receives from the audience and her clown master. But in the crowd, she spots the carpenter and his son, and they see her too. They call out to her, and she immediately runs off the stage, away from the clown and her animal companions, and returns to her original master.

At first, I was confused and a little upset by the ending. “What are you doing you silly dog? You had a better life with the clown. Why are you returning to your old, cruel and indifferent master who treats you like crap?” I thought. The story haunted me for weeks after I read it, and I couldn’t stop thinking about why Kashtanka did what she did. As I contemplated and reread the tale, it began to reveal itself to me as a fable about living a purposeful, creative life.

In an article for The Guardian, journalist Janet Malcolm speculates that the story, which Chekov wrote in 1886 is in fact a “veiled biography”. That year, Chekov was taken under the wings of Aleksei Sergeyevich Suvorin, one of the most influential newspaper and book publishers in Russia at the time. Malcolm writes, “After years of struggling to make ends meet, writing humorous sketches to support his family, he had been taken up by literary Russia’s greatest circus master, the millionaire publisher Suvorin, and pronounced a genuine artist. But being a part of Suvorin’s circus act made Chekhov as tense as it made him happy. We have seen his dismay at no longer being able to produce stories the way he eats pancakes. His letters now also begin to express an ambivalence toward writing that was to remain with him. They suggest that the literary artist, like the animal performer, is doing something unnatural, almost unseemly.”

As a journalist and copywriter who writes short fiction in her spare time, I often feel, like Kashtanka, that my loyalties are split between two masters. The circus clown is the part of me that wants to perform to a crowd for applause — in the form of career success, money, praise, new commissions from editors, fame as measured by the strength of my online presence, and thumbs up and claps on social media. The drunken carpenter is the part of me that is concerned only with extracting a distinctive form from coarse blocks of ideas, locating meaning within the chunk of chaos called life, creating things that will hopefully be of use to others, things that can turn houses into homes, and give heart to humanity.

The Clown: The Artist As Performer

Clowns juggle — the ultimate metaphor for multi-tasking, and they play to the crowd. Their livelihoods depend on how well they entertain the masses, and their days appear to be full of conviviality and motion. When I dance to the tune of my clown master, my mental energies are spent on activities aimed at career building, self-promotion, and income generation. I cook up slogans and headlines I suspect will grab the attention of the most number of readers or potential buyers. I am overly concerned with making my sentences impressive, authoritative, or “original”. I’ll somersault for clients that promise me a big chunk of change, or editors that offer me cover feature bylines.

But these performances quickly become repetitive and tedious. “Every day, the frame, the whip, and the hoop were brought in, and every day almost the same performance took place,” writes Chekov of the clown’s animal trainings sessions. The difference between giving oneself over to the creative process versus mass-producing commercially viable goods was not lost on Chekov. Sometime around 1885, as his star was rising, an elderly, celebrated Russian writer named Dmitry Grigorovich wrote a letter to Chekov after reading his short story “The Huntsman”. Grigorovic wrote, “You have real talent — a talent which places you in the front rank among writers in the new generation.” He then went on to advise Chekhov to “slow down, write less, and concentrate on literary quality”. Chekhov wrote back to Grigorovic admitting that Grigorovic’s words had struck him “like a thunderbolt”. In the letter, Chekhov confessed, “I have written my stories the way reporters write up their notes about fires — mechanically, half-consciously, caring nothing about either the reader or myself.” Grigorovic’s early warning against choosing quantity over quality probably helped Chekhov to reprioritize, and thus grow to become the literary behemoth that he was, and still is.

Aside from the sacrificing of quality, another danger of life with the clown is that it places the artist at the mercy of grandiosity and narcissism. “I want to make an artiste of you… Do you want to be an artiste?” says the clown to Kashtanka before he begins training her, and the way he says “artiste” makes me think of photos of Stephen King looking very distinguished on the back of his book jackets, Madonna staring sultrily out of thousands of giant world tour posters, or any Hollywood A-lister cracking a joke while plugging their new movie on “The Tonight Show”. The “e” at the end of artist brings smoke and mirror connotations to the creative process. It changes the role of the artist from someone who “creates things with great skill and imagination” into “a professional, public entertainer or performer, especially a singer or dancer”. For professional performers, the incentives are often the same: popularity, financial gain, and ever-advancing industry status. Chekov writes, “At the first lesson [the clown] taught [Kashtanka] to stand and walk on her hind legs, which she liked extremely. At the second lesson she had to jump on her hind legs and catch some sugar, which her teacher held high above her head. After that, in the following lessons she danced, ran tied to a cord, howled to music, rang the bell, and fired the pistol, and in a month could successfully replace [the cat] in the ‘Egyptian Pyramid’…She accompanied every successful trick with a shrill, delighted bark, while her teacher wondered, was also delighted, and rubbed his hands. ‘It’s talent! It’s talent!’ he said. ‘Unquestionable talent! You will certainly be successful!” After a month, Kashtanka gets accustomed to her nice dinners every evening. Her life is “comfortable and easy”. Her clown master had used the word talent when speaking to her so often that “every time her master pronounced [talent], she jumped up as if it had been her name.” Approval, affirmation, attention, these are things that all human beings respond well to. The artist however, needs to be extra wary of praise, because like Golem’s precious ring, worldly success creates an insatiable appetite for more of it, especially in those with artistic temperaments. Despite gorging on food and praise from her master, Kashtanka “ate so quickly that she had not time to distinguish the taste, and the more she ate the more acute was the feeling of hunger. [She] ate a great deal and yet did not satisfy her hunger, but was simply stupefied with eating,” writes Chekov.

This is the paradox for artists: that they should yearn for their works to be profound, to be embraced and loved by the world, but that they should never too gluttonously feed upon the glory that these works bring them. It would be wiser for them to focus their efforts on subjects that obsess and trouble them, regardless of how obscure or unpopular these subjects may be.

Not knowing Kashtanka’s name, the clown christens her Auntie, which also becomes her stage name. Auntie — so contrary to a wild, almost mythic name like Kashtanka — alludes to docility, domesticity and conservatism, a beast striped of its feral nature, animus subjugated by ego. In much the same way, the artist who caves in to commercialism loses their free, fierce, and barbaric instincts, and also becomes an “auntie” who politely does what civil society asks of them.

Popular culture essayist and bestselling author Chuck Klosterman is a lauded critic and journalist who works in multiple forms. In a GEN interview with Medium writer Bryan Walsh, when asked why he’s spending his time writing short stories, which are, according to Walsh “commercially challenging even for very well-known writers”, he responded, “I could only do what I had the desire to do. There are some people who would argue that I should have written ten more versions of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. That book sold better than all my other books combined. I certainly could have done that. But this is my life, and I didn’t want my life to be an attempt to do something that I’m not driven to do just because it would make sense to somebody whose mentality was more suited to working in finance,” he said. Klosterman explained that even though he’d like to “make as much money as possible” it would be impossible for him to have a writing life that’s built upon trying to please an audience and increasing his income. “I think that people figure that out. I think they can tell in a way. I think that there are certain things that readers are just oddly sophisticated about. One of those things they have a real sense [about] is when people are doing something solely in the hope that it will appeal to a mass audience,” he said.

The pivoting point in the story was when Kashtanka became, in her own peculiar doggy way, conscious of the brevity of life, and like Klosterman, heard the little voice inside say: “but this is my life”. In the day, when busy performing, the dog is at peace, but at night, when left alone, a sense of melancholy creeps up on her and she becomes homesick for her true master and his domain. “Vague figures, half dogs, half human beings, with countenances attractive, pleasant, but incomprehensible, would appear in her imagination; when they came Auntie wagged her tail, and it seemed to her that she had somewhere, at some time, seen them and loved them. And as she dropped asleep, she always felt that those figures smelt of glue, shavings, and varnish.” On the night of the gander’s passing “there was some stranger in the room. What was most dreadful was that this stranger could not be bitten, as he was unseen and had no shape…she stretched out her head towards the dark window, where it seemed to her, [the] stranger was looking in,” writes Chekov in a way that leads the reader to sense that Kashtanka now has knowledge about death and her own mortality.

When an artist becomes aware that their time on this earth is running out, it becomes impossible for them to repeatedly submit to a clown master in the chase for popularity, fame, and fortune. For an artist to create work of real value, he or she needs to think, feel, speak, act, and create as if they are living their last days; so every word, note or brushstroke, every mark made, will be an enduring lesson to humanity: do not waste precious time on non-essential, un-true, un-beautiful, and soulless things.

The Carpenter: The Artist As Crafter

Life as a craftsman is difficult, and one must be allowed to indulge in bouts of drunken idealism and angry defiance from time to time to endure it. The carpenter, when approaching a block of wood with his chisel and mallet can only slowly chip away at slivers, trusting in years of experience, and blessings from the gods, to manifest a tangible object from an intangible idea. He makes progress by degrees and hopes that his patient toiling will bring forth the item that has been asked of him, and that it will be useful, comfortable and pleasing to behold. In contrast to the clown’s home, which Kashtanka sees as “poor and ugly”, “empty” and as a space that “smelt of nothing”, the carpenter’s home was “stuffed full of things … a table, planes, chisels, saws, a cage with a goldfinch, a basin…” and there was always “a glorious smell of glue, varnish and shavings”. Despite loyal Kashtanka’s warm and loving view of the carpenter’s home, this master is too engrossed in his business or caught up in drunken reveries to care for the wellbeing of his pet, and yells “Go away, damn brute!” to Kashtanka.

Whenever I sit in front of a blank page and attempt to create a piece of writing not for money, but with a hope that it will give expression to something that really matters (to me at least), I feel like the dog facing its angry master. My inner carpenter tells me to get lost. He deems me an unworthy tool for his undertakings. “You, Kashtanka, are an insect of a creature, an nothing else. Beside a man, you are much the same a joiner beside a cabinet-maker,” says the carpenter to his loyal pet. Yet, of the two masters, it is still the carpenter whom I more desperately want to please.

Most artists know that going commercial or mainstream is easier and safer than walking in the dark woods of one’s imagination in the hope of birthing one’s personal equivalent of Joyce’s “Ulysses”, Beethoven’s “Symphony №3” or Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”. Hardworking and honest artists, writers, inventors, musician, designers, filmmakers and actors are perhaps more intimately acquainted with rejection than those working in non-creative fields. In the early stages of their careers, literary writers, painters, and musicians in particular are known to pour themselves into projects that they aren’t paid to work on, and that most likely nobody will even look at or listen to. Yet they continue to labor persistently in their messy workshops because this is their true home. Life with the carpenter isn’t fun and games, but full of hardship and neglect. “If she [Kashtanka] had been a human being,” writes Chekov, “she would have certainly thought: ‘No, it is impossible to live like this! I must shoot myself!’” But we do not, because as creatives, we are devoted to art and so will always return to it. In a Literary Hub interview, renowned short story writer and novelist Lorrie Moore said, “What writers do is workmanlike: tenacious, skilled labor. That we know. But it is also mysterious. And the mystery involved in the act of creating a narrative is attached to the mysteries of life itself, and the creation of life itself: that we are; that there is something rather than nothing.

The carpenter’s son’s cruel trick of baiting Kashtanka with meat then pulling it out of her stomach speaks of how temporary the satisfaction of work well done feels for exacting artists. This is a torturous way to live, so the only way we, the carpenter’s pet, can find relief ­– albeit briefly — is by demanding that our next piece of work be better than our previous. “No artist is pleased. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others,” says modern dance pioneer Martha Graham of this curious drive.

In conclusion, I realize that both carpenter and clown will always be a part of my creative psyche. The secret, as Kashtanka has shown me however, is to make sure I am governed by the craftsman, rather than the crowd-pleaser.

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