Friday, October 24, 2014

More Steinbeck

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.”

  1. “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.”
  2. “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).
  3. “Forget your generalized audience…..In writing, your audience is one single reader….”
  4. “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.”
  5. “Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you.”
  6. “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.”

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Less Distance Between Us

Reyna Grande, author of The Distance Between Us, recently spoke about her experiences as a young undocumented immigrant and becoming an American at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster. 
Her story is relevant in light of the government stalemate on a new immigration bill and media coverage of undocumented children coming to the United States.

Reyna was nine when she came to the U.S. from Mexico, crossing the border with her parents and brother and sister. She was undocumented and not able to speak English when she started school in California.

Like generations of immigrants before them, her parents chased the American dream and wanted a better life for their children. They and their children worked hard to obtain that better life.

Only four years old when her father left, she had a picture of him but to her, he was just a face behind the glass. The children’s situation and life without her parents was more difficult for her older sister, who tried to take care of the younger children, she said. Her sister and brother helped with the book, sharing their memories.

Dr. Bryn Upton, a professor at McDaniel College, led the Question and Answer period. He asked Reyna about life “in the shadows” and to describe her early life as an undocumented immigrant. She said that taking ESL classes and being able to speak English increased her confidence in school. Then President George W. Bush’s amnesty bill allowed her to get her green card at 13. That helped bring her out of the shadows.

After attending Pasadena City College for two years, she went to the University of California, Santa Cruz and graduated with a B.A in creative writing and film and video. She was the first member of her family to graduate from college. Later she received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Antioch College.  Now she teaches creative writing at UCLA Extension.

She couldn’t write this book when she was 22. It still was not easy at this stage of life, but it has been a catharsis, she said. The writing was cleansing. It was therapy.

A professor told her what she was writing at first was an autobiography. She was writing about too much of her life A memoir covers a limited amount of time.

Reyna realized she had to stop looking at her parents as a daughter and look at them through the viewpoint of an author. She began to look at them as characters in a story. As characters, their good points as well as their bad points were revealed, as well as the history that affected them, that made them who they were. She saw her parents were products of their own upbringing.

Before writing this memoir she had written two novels. She received an American Book Award in 2007 for Across a Hundred Mountains. In 2009, Dancing with Butterflies was published.

In her novels, portions of her life are revealed. Worry about a father not returning, came from fear when she was younger that he wouldn’t return for her.

Thoughts about writing were scattered throughout her speech and during the question and answer period.

She said, “Whenever I listen to another writer speak, I am inspired and motivated.” I also think new ideas or changes to an existing work while listening to other writers, just as I did during Reyna’s talk.
“These ‘ghosts inside’ were demanding attention,” she said. “I also am reminded about the basics: good characterization and setting.”

It bothers her that so many people look at immigration as numbers, not as people. Individuals lose their identity. She included only one statistic in the book: that 80 percent of children in ESL classes come from families split by immigration, and hopes teachers keep in mind the hurdles they are facing.

All Americans are immigrants, but the younger generations tend to forget where their ancestors came from. All had difficulties when they first came to their new country.

I wish I had written this blog right away instead of just jotting down notes. I feel I’ve lost a lot of the impact of the evening. It was interesting and enlightening to share some of this writer’s life and thoughts. If you have a chance to attend one of the events featuring Reyna Grande I definitely would recommend you go.

Thanks to the Maryland Humanities Council, the Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality, United Hands of Carroll County, McDaniel College  and the Carroll Library Partnership for sponsoring this program.