Sunday, August 15, 2010

John Steinbeck on writing

Underneath a stack of books the other day, I found a copy of Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, and I started to read a little of it every day. (It's not a book that you want to gulp down at a single sitting.) Since what Steinbeck did was a little unusual, I thought I'd mention it here.

When he sat down to write East of Eden, which he saw as his "big book," Steinbeck took a 10 x 14 notebook that his editor, Pascal Covici, Jr., had given him and got to work. Every morning he'd warm up by writing an (imagined) letter to Covici on the left-hand page of the notebook before beginning work on the novel on the right-hand side. He talks a little bit about what's going on in his life, but he also works out his ideas there.
February 16. . . . Now I have sat a week. It is Friday and I have sweated out one page and a half. If I did not know this process so well I would consider it a week of waste. But I know better than that now and am content.

March 21. . . . You must thing 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. I apparently have to dawdle a certain amount before I go to work. Also If i keep the dawdling in this form I never leave my story.

May 7. . . . Now to the book. This is a brooding time in the book--a time of waiting and a time in which dangers poke up their heads. Why doesn't Adam listen when Cathy says she will be going away? I don't know. Men don't listen to what they don't want to hear. I know I didn't and every man I think is somewhat the same. Every man. I must point that out very clearly. Adam has a picture of his life and he will continue to maintain his picture against every influence until his world comes down. I know that this is true. But I must make it convincing.
Part of what's interesting for me about this notebook is that the process seems to be the same for us all--not much of an insight, I know. Steinbeck gets distracted by other commitments (speeches) and finds it hard to come back to writing. He thinks about his writing tools and is pleased to sharpen another dozen pencils. He cleans his writing room--"really deeply cleaned it and found things that had been lost for a very long time." He worries about whether anyone is going to get book's Biblical symbolism.

Steinbeck also talks about his diet and how he intends to lose weight. This might seem trivial, but I think it's something else. In reading blogs and other writers' thoughts on writing, I've been struck by how often a mental commitment to writing is almost incidentally paired with some form of physical commitment or discipline--either completing a list of tasks or recommitting to some form of exercise. I wonder if the physical activity somehow reinforces the mental discipline needed to keep at the task of writing.

Now that the massive and exciting distractions of a new semester are about to start, it's comforting somehow to read about someone else's ordinary writing process.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I read somewhere that making an effort at one form of discipline spills over into the rest of life. A study that made student volunteers work to improve their posture found that they started going to bed earlier and otherwise behaving better. Now why doesn't my highly disciplined gym-routine do more for my writing habits?

undine said...

That's an interesting study, Dame Eleanor. The discipline-in-other-areas idea doesn't work for me, either, but I guess I'll keep trying.

Anonymous said...

I find John Steinbeck's writin technique, shared on this post, profound. And I agree that it is his "warmup" page to clear his head. Ultimately, he was a great American novelist and I love his work. I am currently reading East of Eden and recently posted about the beauty of his writing.

Thank you,

- Jennifer Swan

undine said...

Thanks, Jennifer, and thanks for your thoughts (at your blog) on East of Eden.