For Steinbeck, the week of 13 June 1938 started “unpropitiously.” He was suffering from a hangover and a sense of foreboding, the latter no doubt a response to the pledge he had made to keep a daily journal, an instrument that he hoped would keep him on task. “All sorts of things might happen in the course of this book but I must not be weak,” he wrote. “This must be done. The failure of will even for one day has a devastating effect on the whole, far more important than the loss of time and wordage” (Entry #13).
By “this book” he means the as yet unnamed novel, The Grapes of Wrath. He had pledged himself to writing 2,000 words per day and completing the 200,000 word manuscript in 5 months, from May to October of 1938. That was his plan, and the journal was a measure and reminder of both an intellectual and a physical commitment. As he explained, “[t]he whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language”(Entry #13).
Discipline is one of the great themes of Steinbeck’s journal. Another is his struggle with himself, his own self-doubts. “I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability,” he confesses. “I’ll just have to work from a background of these.” All he can demand of himself is “honesty”: “For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity” (Entry #18).
Occasionally, his self-doubts subside, dispelled by the positive responses of friends to whom he reads entire sections of the manuscript; set aside by the press of daily responsibilities; or replaced by his own conviction about the relevance of the story he is telling about immigration and poverty and injustice. When the self-doubts return, they do so with a vengeance:
“I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were” (Entry #52).
“Always I have been weak. Vacillating and miserable. I wish I wouldn’t. I wish I weren’t. I’m so lazy, so damned lazy”(Entry #56).
“My work is no good, I think—I’m desperately upset about it. Have no discipline any more. I must get back. An ordinary novel would be finished now, but not this one. This one must be good. Very good. And I’m afraid it is not” (Entry #58).
The daily journal was the place where Steinbeck vented his self-doubt, his sense of anguish for what he saw AS the limits of his skills as a writer. [Read more…]