Chekhov on Why the Task of Art Is Not to Solve Problems But to Formulate Questions – Brain Pickings

by Joseph K. Clark

It is a truism that the questions we ask shape the answers we find. It is also a truth. Another is that our questions — those wonderments, uncertainties, and quickenings of doubt that roil under the surface of life — are the atomic units of our creativity. Everything we make — our songs and our stories, our poems and our equations — we make to find out how the world works and what we are and how to live with our restless longing for absolutes in a relative universe. Such questions — the questions that “can make or unmake a life,” in the words of the perceptive poet David Whyte — are both the raw material and the end result of all great art; art is tasked not with solving the puzzles of being but with dissolving the false certainties of our near-life experience.

Anton Chekhov (January 29, 1860–July 15, 1904) was twenty-eight when he addressed this in a letter to a friend, included in How to Write Like Chekhov: Advice and Inspiration, Straight from His Own Letters and Work (public library).

Formulate Questions

Corresponding with his friend Alexei Suvorin — a short story writer, playwright, and journalist, who went on to become the most influential newspaper publisher in the sunset hour of the Russian Empire — Chekhov, translated by Lena Lenček, wrote on October 27, 1888:

A century before James Baldwin observed that the task of the artist is to “drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides” and Susan Sontag insisted that the writer must guard against becoming an “opinion-machine,” Chekhov argues that the work of the artist is not problem-solving — this is best left to those with aptitude suited to the problem at hand — but question-framing:

Cautioning against the common conflation of two distinct concepts — “solving the problem” and “correctly formulating the problem” — he observes:

Complement with Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the creative power of uncertainty and David Whyte’s questioning poem “Sometimes,” then revisit Chekhov on the 8 qualities of cultured people

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