Saturday, February 23, 2008

Steinbeck on Writing

I recently finished reading John Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel, which charts his writing of East of Eden. Every day before he began working on the novel, he wrote a letter to his editor, a kind of warm-up that resulted in his musing about life and writing.

Apparently, he never intended these letters to be a publishable book, but I'm glad we have them. They offer wonderful insights into craft. (Guilty admission: I liked Journal of a Novel better than East of Eden.)

Steinbeck was a real work-horse, writing this massive novel in pencil in less than a year. He was obsessive about having a number of well-sharpened pencils within his reach at all times.

A workhorse, yes--but not a racehorse. He wasn't racing to the finish. In fact, he found if he created deadlines for himself (saying, for instance, the novel would be finished on X date), that threw him off. Instead, he liked to write imagining that he would never be finished. That way he could focus on what was in front of him.

About writing, he says, "True things quite often do not sound true unless they are made to."

I like this. Often in writing workshops, someone might doubt the sense of authenticity in a story. Then the writer will say, "Well, it really happened!" That's not the point. Obviously we know we are reading fiction. But we want the satisfaction of an authentic experience echoing a larger truth. The point is: was it written in such a way as we believe it?

Steinbeck writes a lot about "refrain"--about returning to a key theme, idea, image. He says refrain is "a recapitulation of intention" and that it is "one of the most valuable of all form methods. Refrain is a return to the known before one flies again upwards. It is a consolation to the reader, a reassurance that the book has not left his understanding."

In this way, music and writing (both prose and poetry) are alike. I like thinking about that. In fact, I like music playing while I write, sometimes--and that may be why.


Speaking of Steinbeck, if you've never been to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, it's definitely worth the trip. One of my favorite things was seeing actual manuscripts written in his tiny, pencilled script. I also was amazed at seeing Rocinante, the actual truck with camper that Steinbeck drove across the country, as he writes about in one of my favorite Steinbeck books, Travels with Charley.

Charley is pictured here, with Steinbeck.


Montgomery Maxton said...

He's one of my favorite authors. "Of Mice and Men" is my favorite work of his.

The Grapes of Wrath was a required read in 11th grade for me.

Pris said...

Good blog. I write novels, along with my poetry and yes, so true. Nothing more boring or 'unrealistic' than a transcription of a 'real' conversation and saying, 'but it really happened'. Who cares? We want something interesting going on in books. Not 'hello..this is Pearl. Oh hi, I was just making some pumpkin pie...oh hold on while I stir the batter....':-)

Kate Evans said...

MM, The Grapes of Wrath is one of my all-time favorite novels. The ending has haunted me for years.

Pris, I like the very clear way you say it: something INTERESTING must be going on in books!