Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lessons Learned from John Steinbeck

I recently finished reading Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck. I had no idea this book existed until a few weeks ago when I read a friend's review of it on Goodreads. When Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, he did so long hand. His editor gave him a notebook, and Steinbeck used the left hand pages to write daily letters to his editor, and he used the right hand pages to write the first draft of the novel. He referred to his letters as a warm up to help ease him into his fiction writing for the day. Interestingly, a similar method is referred to in The Artist's Way, in which Julia Cameron recommends writing out 'morning pages' before starting on the day's work.

I found it exceedingly refreshing that Steinbeck appeared to suffer the same roller coaster of emotions while writing his novel that I feel when writing any new piece. He loved it... then he hated it. Some days he went to work gladly on it, and the words flowed, and other days he struggled to get the words down. And yet, when I read the novel, I couldn't say, "Oh, this passage is where he struggled, and this one is where the words flowed." In Steinbeck's own words: "And you know of course that many times before I finish this book I shall hate it with a deadly hatred. I shall detest the day when I started it. It will seem the poorest piece of crap that was ever set down." That's a harsh self-judgment, and one that pretty much all writers make about their own work at some point.

I just passed the "I hate it" point of the novella I'm working on for NaNoWriMo. It felt like I was walking through sludge to get the words on paper. But now I'm heading into the homestretch. I'm getting ready to write the climax, which is the scene that inspired this entire novella in the first place. Perhaps that's why I felt like the previous scene was so torturous; all I could think of was this one. In my mind, it's beautiful, and I want to convey that same beauty to the people who read it. As Steinbeck also said, "Writing is a very silly business at best." Here I have this great story in my head, and I have to translate it to words, put them down on paper, and then hope that the people reading it pick up on the image I had in mind when I wrote it.

As I prepare to wrap up the rough draft of this novella, I'm keeping in mind another of Steinbeck's observations as he finished his rough draft: "So, we go into the last week and I may say I am very much frightened. I guess it would be hard to be otherwise--all of these months and years aimed in one direction and suddenly it is over and it seems that the thunder has produced a mouse."

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