Thursday, February 27, 2014

John Steinbeck on Writing

I've been aware of John Steinbeck as long as I can remember. I've known the titles of his famous novels but never read any until last year. When Elmore Leonard died I read about his writing inspirations and at the top was John Steinbeck. I've always marveled at Leonard's gift of dialog and was excited to learn that it was Steinbeck that inspired him. In 2002 he wrote:
For me that is what John Steinbeck inspired, the simplicity that if you can’t do it well, don’t do it. If you can do something well . . . from that time on, 1954, I concentrated on telling my stories in dialogue so I wouldn’t have to describe the characters.
Library of America blog
After reading Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and The Grapes of Wrath, I have to agree, Steinbeck's ability to convey character through dialog is a wonder.

In 1975 The Paris Review published an interview with Steinbeck.

In that interview, a close personal friend of Steinbeck, Nathaniel Benchley, made the following observations:
• He once said that to write well about something you had to either love it or hate it very much. 
•...his fierce dedication to his writing, and his conviction that every word he put down was the best he could find, were signs of a man who dreaded ever having it said that he was slipping, or that he hadn't given it his best.

The remainder of these quotes are from Steinbeck's East of Eden diaries (Journal of a Novel), and personal letters.
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that 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. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. 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.

In a letter to his Creative Writing teacher at Stanford, Steinbeck tells just how easy it is being a writer:

But surely you were right about one thing, Edith. It took a long time—a very long time. And it is still going on and it has never got easier. You told me it wouldn't.

It gives me hope that even the best struggle. All that matters is perseverance.
It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage. If the written word has contributed anything at all to our developing species and our half developed culture, it is this: Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult, a wisdom to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. And how any negative or despairing approach can pretend to be literature I do not know.

I hope I can keep all the reins in my hands and at the same time make it sound as though the book were almost accidental. That is going to be hard to do but it must be done. Also I'll have to lead into the story so gradually that my reader will not know what is happening to him until he is caught. That is the reason for the casual—even almost flippant—sound. It's like a man setting a trap for a fox and pretending with pantomime that he doesn't know there is a fox or a trap in the country.

My work does not coagulate. It is as unmanageable as a raw egg on the kitchen floor. It makes me crazy. I am really going to try now and I'm afraid that the very force of the trying will take all the life out of the work.

Suddenly I feel lonely in a curious kind of way. I guess I am afraid. That always comes near the end of a book—the fear that you have not accomplished what you started to do. That is as natural as breathing.

In a short time that will be done and then it will not be mine anymore. Other people will take it over and own it and it will drift away from me as though I had never been a part of it. I dread that time because one can never pull it back, it's like shouting good-bye to someone going off in a bus and no one can hear because of the roar of the motor.