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Writing Daze

Flickr Creative Commons: Joe Flood

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. The journal was “a marvelous method of calming me down each day” (Entry #45), the place where he arrived each morning, centering down to plan the arc of the day’s writing.

According to Robert DeMott, editor of Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck never developed a formal outline. Instead he “sketched out the novel in his head–in aggregate first, then followed by a brief planning session each day.” DeMott describes The Grapes of Wrath as “an intuited whole.” The journal documents “the sweaty process through which Steinbeck liberated his materials, gave them direction, shape, and form nearly commensurate with his primary vision.”

His description reminds me of George Orwell’s scathing satire, The Road to Wigan Pier: for what is bright and beautiful about civilization rests on willfully forgetting the danger and darkness of the mines, the oppressive limits placed on the lives of miners. Similarly, here Steinbeck’s “intuited” and visionary epic rests on the “sweaty” and enslaved process reserved for the journal.

Consider the revolutionary aesthetic Wordsworth and Coleridge outlined in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads: “For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Then consider the other half of that statement:

For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; but though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility had also thought long and deeply.

Each poem has a purpose; each must “follow the fluxes and re-fluxes of the mind agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature.” Good writing, then, is not only thoughtful, it is also purposeful. The poem, the story the poem tells, is didactic to the degree that it reveals an unusually “organic sensibility.” Most important, the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” is only part of a more complex process that includes the nurturing of an “organic sensibility,” and long, deep contemplation.

In the case of Steinbeck, what DeMott terms an “intuited whole” was actually preceded by a long series of newspaper articles titled “The Harvest Gypsies”; an unfinished novel, The Oklahomans; and a satire, L’Affaire Lettuceberg. The novel that earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and led to his 1962 Nobel Prize evolved through a complex drafting and revision process that included rudimentary iterations of the Joads’ story, as well as the daily encounter with himself in the journal. Steinbeck, in the words of Wordsworth, “had also thought long and deeply.”

We owe a debt of gratitude to Robert DeMott for his scholarly work, which opens Steinbeck’s process to us as writers and readers. Steinbeck’s journal of the months he spent working on The Grapes of Wrath should remind us never to confuse the intuitive flash across the mind’s eye with the hard task, intellectual and physical, of getting a story down on the page. His journal should remind us not to judge ourselves too harshly. Stories (and story outlines) can appear in many guises.

About Elizabeth Huergo [1]

Elizabeth Huergo [2] was born in Havana and immigrated to the United States at an early age as a political refugee. A published poet and story writer, she lives in Virginia. The Death of Fidel Perez is her first novel. You can learn more about Elizabeth on her website [2], and by following her on Twitter [3].