Steinbeck on Writing

John Steinbeck is to me the greatest writer ever. The opening paragraph to ‘Cannery Row’ not only sets the scene as compactly as can be, it also has the rhythm of the Cannery, so you can hear it as you read it. He is largley famous for his bleak portrayals of Depression poverty, but he is also fantastic with scenery and with humour. His final book, ‘Travels with Charley’ is incredible. The artist as an old man on a journey with a dog to discover the America he’s spend his life documenting.

He is sometimes accused of being all over the place, but surely that is the mark of a genuine artist – to try different styles, different views of the world.

I’m also intrigued by the fact that he and Aron Copland were almost exact contemporaries. They witnessed and responded to the immense changes that turned the United States from an agricultural country to a world power. In their work you see the growing pains of a nation, and much much more. The following is Steinbeck’s take on how to write. You may wish to track down Stephen Kings’s book ‘On Writing’ for another path towards becoming a best selling author.

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets 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. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person–a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

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, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue–say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

“As you write,” Steinbeck says, “trust the disconnections and the gaps. If you have written what your eye first saw and you are stopped, see again. See something else. Take a leap to another image. Don’t require of yourself that you understand the connection. Some of the most brilliant things that happen in fiction occur when the writer allows what seems to be a disconnected image to lead him or her away from the line that was being taken.”



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