Being Great, the Steinbeck way - Ruth Hatfield
I haven’t been out much recently, mainly due to having a book to finish. Having just clambered to the finishing line of the eighty-first draft of my manuscript, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering ‘how did I get into this in the first place?’ and ‘is it time to paint that wall a different colour?’. Decorating aside, this soul-searching resulted in a bit of dwelling on the subject of writers’ journals, which have often instructed, inspired and reassured me.
The first one I could remember reading was the incredible ‘Journal of a Novel’ by John Steinbeck, and I knew it had made a deep impression but I couldn’t quite remember why. So I took it off the shelf and had another look.
I’m not sure if it's just the rule that everyone has to go through a Steinbeck obsession in their late teens, but I did, and it was wonderful – he stoked my outrage about the pitilessness of the world, swept me along with his passion and made me feel as though I were sitting by the fire with him, being told stories to inspire me to write a new world. His writing was clear, effortless and enlightening. I was in awe.
After going through my must-write-like-Steinbeck period (manuscripts now safely lining moles’ nests), I realised that I couldn’t write like him, but that I should never feel afraid to write about the things that inspired passion in me. And as I opened ‘Journal of a Novel’ again, I discovered the roots of this self-belief.
The book is a collection of letters that Steinbeck wrote to his friend and editor, Pascal Covici, during the time that he was writing the first draft of East of Eden. He wrote a letter every day before beginning work, putting down whatever thoughts were in his mind – a process familiar to many of us in our daily writing lives. Except that Steinbeck, having already written The Grapes of Wrath, surely enough of a classic hit for anyone’s lifetime, also states from the very beginning that he is setting out to write the greatest book he will ever write.
‘I have written each book as an exercise, as practice for the one to come. And this is the one to come’, he says.
So far so good, he’s John Steinbeck and he knows he is a great writer. He can say such things.
But then he starts writing it, and of course the process for him is the same as it is for the rest of us. He agonises over putting down the first line. He gets distracted by creating huge and enormous similies, one of my favourite being:
‘No matter what I do, the story is always there – waiting and working kind of like a fermenting mash out of which whiskey will be made eventually but meanwhile the mass bubbles and works and makes foam, and it is very interesting but the product that is wished for… is the whiskey. All the turmoil and boiling is of no interest to anyone’.
And incredibly, he has good days and bad days, about which he can only say ‘I don’t understand why some days are wide open and others closed off, some days smile and others have thin slitted eyes and others still are days which worry’. I think at eighteen, I saw that as a surprising weakness in such a great writer…
‘Journal of a Novel’ is full of pithy sense and observations that I ought to embroider and hang over my desk – like most writers' journals, it’s a fascinating book about the mental process of writing a novel. But where this one differs, I think, is that there is such clarity of vision in it. Steinbeck says he will do something great, then he rambles and has doubts and changes his mind, but you never believe, really, that he is fumbling around in the dark, no matter how much he tells you that he might be. His aim is to write the book that contains ‘all in the world I know and…everything in it of which I am capable’.
When I read ‘Journal of a Novel’ aged eighteen, the tone of conviction grabbed at me: Steinbeck said he was going to write a great book, and he did it. And in writing these letters, he lets us see a little of the drive and the humility and the inspired grinding away that led him to do it.
In my edition, the quote chosen for the back is the one I’m now definitely going to embroider and put on my wall: ‘in utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable… If he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible’.
If it worked for John Steinbeck, it can work for any of us...