Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.– John Steinbeck
Darn, sounds like he wouldn’t approve of my upcoming attempt to distill his writing advice into a perfect recipe – but, unfortunately for him, the show must go on. Sorry, John.
Steinbeck, despite his anti-advice stance, in fact gave some excellent writing advice over the course of his career. And, seeing as he’s one of the enduring figures of the 20th-century Western canon, we’d be fools to ignore him. After all, who doesn’t want a Grapes of Wrath under their belt?
1. Have imaginary friends
An inauspicious start perhaps, but don’t worry, Steinbeck’s not suggesting you make a habit of discussing the finer points of plot structure with your childhood phantom; instead, he suggests that writing to an imagined figure (he wrote to an imagined editor) can be helpful for those of us who find the act of writing intimidating.
It is usual that the moment you write for publication – I mean one of course – one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.
– John Steinbeck in The Paris Review
Indeed, Steinbeck’s ‘letters’ would eventually become huge reservoirs of thought and reflection that acted as sources of reassurance and inspiration, spurring him on when he felt down, inadequate, or fraudulent (which, judging by his journals, was pretty often!) Indeed, Steinbeck kept such detailed accounts of his processes and struggles during novel-writing that his letters and journals were collated and published in Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters and Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath.
This daily practice of preliminary writing also acted as a kind of ‘practice space’ where Steinbeck could warm up and wriggle into the writing headspace before having to take the intimidating step of adding sentences to whatever novel/short story he was working on.
You must think I waste an awful lot of time on these notes to you but actually it is the warm-up period. It is the time of drawing thoughts together and I don’t resent it one bit.– John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters
If, like Steinbeck, you find the concept of working on your latest project acutely terrifying, or if you simply find your thoughts muddy and confusing when sitting down to get started, think up someone to write letters to and start the day explaining your fears to them.
2. Work quickly and forget about finishing
Like Stephen King and Jennifer Egan, Steinbeck suggests working as quickly and consistently as possible on that first draft. Only after everything’s on paper should you go back, edit, and revise. For him, stopping, editing, and starting again ‘interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.’
In this thinking, he comes across as similar to fellow author Paul Auster, who insists that most of his best writing gets done ‘in a kind of trance’ – that is, on a subconscious level. Steinbeck says:
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.– John Steinbeck in The Paris Review
Also like Auster, Steinbeck recognizes the inherent misery and dissatisfaction of writing. I personally find Steinbeck’s reflections very comforting as, like me, Steinbeck feels that, really, he’d probably rather just be asleep. Has there ever been a more relatable quote than: ‘One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense’?
This kind of sleepy despair makes Steinbeck’s perseverance and courage all the more impressive. Despite his nagging mind and his appreciation for idleness, Steinbeck managed to get through an astonishing number of books and stories in his career. One thing that helped him was his conscious decision to never focus on the end:
Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day; it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.– John Steinbeck in The Paris Review
I’m sure all our ‘goal-oriented’ and ‘results-driven’ business readers just spat out their coffee, but there it is: what works in the boardroom apparently didn’t work for John Steinbeck.
3. Write for one person
Some writers write for the market – that is, they analyze market trends, see what’s selling, and try to write something that taps into the apparent zeitgeist that will sell similarly well – and others write for themselves. Some, like Toni Morrison, write for their characters, and Steinbeck writes for one specific reader.
This could be anyone – a friend, a colleague, a disgruntled academic writing in The London Review of Books – or even yourself. Indeed, writing for yourself is simply following the old adage, ‘Write what you yourself want to read.’
For Steinbeck, it means forgetting ‘your generalized audience.’ The reasons are manifold:
In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theatre, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person – a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.– John Steinbeck in The Paris Review
More imagined people! The crux of Steinbeck’s advice here seems to be an acknowledgment of the fact that you can’t please everyone; you can’t cater to all tastes. It’s far better to maintain focus and do a few things well (not worrying about those who won’t like it) than it is to do a lot of things poorly. Don’t spread your writing too thin!
4. Accept fear
Ah, fear, the bedmate of many writers. Even authors as successful as Zadie Smith and Sally Rooney talk about worrying, after finishing a book, whether their creative fuel has finally run out. What if that’s it? What if they never write another book?
Steinbeck was no stranger to this kind of panic. A surprising sufferer of impostor syndrome (how does one write Of Mice and Men and continue to feel like a fraud? Wild!) Steinbeck wrestled with fear, self-doubt, and disappointment throughout his career, even after winning his Pulitzer. The letters and journals he kept are testament to these thoughts, with some of his lamentations almost reaching Kafka-levels of woe: ‘My work is no good, I think – I’m desperately upset about it… I’m slipping. I’ve been slipping all my life.’
So how did he get through this fear? What pushed him to continue despite his apparent disappointment in himself?
Author and blogger Maria Popova, at Brain Pickings, suggests that Steinbeck essentially and unknowingly adopted Buddhist methods (what would eventually go on to become ‘mindfulness’) to push through; he saw his fear, acknowledged it, and let it pass. He didn’t fight it, he didn’t try to stop it coming, and he didn’t let it control him. As Popova says, ‘He feels his feelings of doubt fully, lets them run through him, and yet maintains a higher awareness that they are just that: feelings, not Truth.’ On the subject, Steinbeck says:
I will go so far as to say that the writer who is not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.– John Steinbeck
In this way, Steinbeck reframes his fear as something encouraging and validating; he is scared for the right reasons. He is, after all, a serious writer, and fear is part of the package.
5. Cultivate disciplined habits
Read any self-help business article since the publication of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People back in 1989 and you’ll find a paragraph on self-discipline. While reading too many of these will eventually fill you with a kind of boiling despair, they do have a point: without self-discipline, all the talent in the world won’t do you any good. You’ve got to put the hours in.
Steinbeck understood this fully; it was both a great burden (if only it wasn’t so difficult!) and his comfort (so what if I don’t have the talent or the brain to write? I’ll just work harder). You can see his fiery determination and discipline clearly in this excerpt from Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath:
All sorts of things might happen in the course of this book but I must not be weak. This must be done. The failure of will even for one day has a devastating effect on the whole, far more important than just the loss of time and wordage. The whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language. And sadly enough, if any of the discipline is gone, all of it suffers.– John Steinbeck, Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath
Grim determination indeed. His pain here is something like faith – a dogged belief in doing what must be done, no matter the cost. He reminds me here of Cheryl Strayed, who said to a miserable, disenchanted young writer, ‘I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to.’
So: no more excuses. Toni Morrison got up every day at five a.m. so she could write before her kids woke up. Sylvia Plath wrote for six hours every day. Writing is work and, as Steinbeck did, we must give it the respect that work deserves.
Journey of a novel
So there it is. Again and again in Steinbeck’s journals and letters, determination and doubt arise as topics. These, it seems, are the core of his writing experience and the main monsters he had to wrestle. At the end of the day, it was all about grit.
This is certainly food for thought; I wonder how Steinbeck would have fared in today’s distraction-heavy world? Could his proto-mindful methods and fierce discipline have saved him from YouTube and smartphones? Or would they have calmed his fear?
There’s only one way to know for sure: channel your inner Steinbeck, cultivate good habits, assert some self-discipline, and give his methods a go. Let me know how you get on!
What are your favorite books by John Steinbeck? How has he influenced your own writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out 6 Ways Mark Twain Can Help You Improve Your Writing and 7 Ways William Faulkner Can Help You Improve Your Writing.