John Steinbeck was a prolific letter writer, expressing his activities, thoughts and writing process.
If you read my September 20th post about Steinbeck, you will know how much I enjoyed learning about his life from Steinbeck, A Life in Letters, which was compiled by his wife Elaine Steinbeck and good friend Robert Wallsten.
After a week’s break, I continued reading the 800-plus page book and I found so much more I wanted to share. I had trouble finding time to read all his letters, often containing minor information to friends, but I kept finding gems among Steinbeck’s letters, and just couldn’t stop reading.
He was a complex man, as most people are, but few people can reveal their feelings as well as he did.
He loved writing and penned:
“I must say I do have fun with my profession…”
“I’m starting a new book and it is fun. They are all painful fun while I am doing them.”
“I approach the table every morning with a sense of Joy.” “The yellow pages are beginning to be populated with people and with ideas.”
“To be a writer implies a kind of promise that one will do the best he can without reference to external pressures of any kind.”
One winter he wrote, “The air has muscle.” What a great way to describe it.
“It takes just as long to write a short piece as a long one.”
About plays – “Dialogue carry the whole burden not only of movement but of character.”
“…it never gets any easier. The process of writing a book is the process of outgrowing it. I am just as scared now as I was 25 years ago.”
He wrote to Peter Benchley in 1956, “”A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator.”
“Of course a writer rearranges life, shortens time intervals, sharpens events, and devises beginnings, middles and ends and this is arbitrary because there are no beginnings nor any ends.”
As a former journalist, I was pleased that he was not completely against journalism, as so many people are today.
To John P. McKnight of the U S Information Service in Rome he wrote, “What can I say about journalism? It has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil. It is the first thing the dictator controls. It is the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap. In many cases it is the only history we have and yet it is the tool of the worst men. But over a long period of time and because it is the product of so many men, it is perhaps the purest thing we have. Honesty has a way of creeping in even when it was not intended.”
He included some basic hints about writing in a letter to Robert Wallsten, 1962. I am just using excerpts from the letter.
“I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.”
- “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.” He advises Wallsten to write just one page for each day. “Then when it is finished you are always surprised.”
- “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down….” Good advice if you are planning to participate in National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo).
- “Forget your generalized audience…..In writing, your audience is one single reader….”
- “If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it – bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.”
- “Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you.”
- “If you are using dialogue – say it aloud as you write it.”
We’ve heard most of this before, but it never hurts to be reminded.
In 1960s, he wrote, “I find I love words very much. And gradually I am getting the a series of dictionaries of modern languages. The crazy thing about all this is that I don’t use a great variety of words in my work at all. I just love them for themselves.”
Steinbeck wrote newspaper and magazine articles, plays, short stories and even some poetry, besides his famous novels. He was often controversial. But he wrote with feeling and clarity. It was not surprising that he was awarded the Novel Prize for Literature 1962 and received Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.
“…a writer like a knight – must aim at perfection, and failing, not fall back on the cushion that there is no perfection. He must believe himself capable of perfection even when he fails. And that is probably why it is the loneliest profession in the world and the most lost,” he wrote. “I come toward the ending of my life with the same ache for perfection I had as a child.”