Issue 48, Fall 1969
EDITOR’S NOTE: John Steinbeck had agreed to a Paris Review interview late in his life. He had earlier been coy about it, but then wanted the interview very much. He was, unfortunately, too sick to work on the project, though it was at the end often in his thoughts.With this interest of his in mind, the editors of this magazine compiled a number of comments on the Art of Fiction that John Steinbeck made over the years. The majority of them come from the East of Eden diaries, published in December 1969 by The Viking Press under the title Journey of a Novel. The quotes have been organized under various topic headings rather than chronologically, as they are in the diaries. Nathaniel Benchley, a close friend of the author, has provided the introduction.
By rights this preface or introduction or whatever it is should be called “Compliments of a Friend,” because I have neither the perspective nor the desire to offer up a critique of John Steinbeck’s writing, even if anyone would listen. Furthermore nobody has asked me to, so we’re all that much better off. I knew him, and I know a little bit of what he thought about writing, and that will be my contribution.
He once said that to write well about something you had to either love it or hate it very much, and that in a sense was a mirror of his own personality. Things were either black or white, and although he might change his basic position (as he eventually did about the Vietnam war), if you were on his side you could do no wrong and if you were agin him you could do no right. It wasn’t as simplistic as that may make it sound, but there were very few gray areas where he was concerned. And when he wrote, you certainly knew whose side he was on. You hoped it was yours.
Long ago, he was quoted as saying that genius was a little boy chasing a butterfly up a mountain. He later insisted that what he’d really said was that it was a butterfly chasing a little boy up a mountain (or a mountain chasing a butterfly up a little boy; I’ve forgotten which) and I think in some ways he was haunted by having caught his butterfly so early in the game. He never said this in so many words (to me, at any rate), but his fierce dedication to his writing, and his conviction that every word he put down was the best he could find, were signs of a man who dreaded ever having it said that he was slipping, or that he hadn’t given it his best. One time, at the behest of a son of mine at Exeter, he wrote a few paragraphs for the 76th anniversary edition of The Exonian; he called it “In Awe of Words,” and with the permission of the management I’ll reproduce it here, because as usual he says these things better for himself.
A man who writes a story is forced to put into it the best of his knowledge and the best of his feeling.
The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty. A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator. Of course, there are dishonest writers who go on for a little while, but not for long—not for long.
A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel— “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” Of course a writer rearranges life, shortens time intervals, sharpens events, and devises beginnings, middles and ends. We do have curtains—in a day, morning, noon and night, in a man, birth, growth and death.
These are curtain rise and curtain fall, but the story goes on and nothing finishes.
To finish is sadness to a writer—a little death. He puts the last word down and it is done. But it isn’t really done. The story goes on and leaves the writer behind, for no story is ever done.
Reading through his obituaries, I found a good deal of analytical writing about his work, and one rewrite man ventured the personal note that he was considered shy, but nowhere did I see a word about one of the most glorious facets of his character, which was his humor. All good humor defies analysis (E. B. White likened it to a frog, which dies under dissection) and John’s defied it more than most, because it was not gag-type humor but was the result of his wildly imaginative mind, his remarkable store of knowledge, and his precision with words. This respect for, and precision with, words led him to avoid almost every form of profanity; where most people would let their rage spill out the threadbare obscenities, he would concoct some diatribe that let off the steam and was at the same time mildly diverting. One example should suffice: At Easter about three years ago we were visiting the Steinbecks at Sag Harbor, and John and I arose before the ladies to make breakfast. He hummed and puttered about the kitchen with the air of a man who was inventing a new form of toaster, and suddenly the coffee pot boiled over, sending torrents of coffee grounds over the stove and clouds of vapor into the air. John leaped for the switch, shouting, “Nuts/!No wonder I’m a failure! No wonder nobody ever asks for my hand in marriage! Nuts!” By that time both he and the coffee had simmered down, and he started a new pot. I think that this was the day he stoutly denied having a hangover, and after a moment of reflection added, “Of course, I do have a headache that starts at the base of my spine...“ He spent the rest of the morning painting an Easter egg black, as a protest.
There was, oddly, a lot of little boy left in him, if by little boy you can mean a searching interest in anything new, a desire to do or to find or to invent some sort of diversion, a fascination with any gadget of any sort whatsoever, and the ability to be entertained by comparative trivia. He was the only adult I have ever seen who would regularly laugh at the Sunday comics; he raised absolute hell in our kitchen with an idea for making papier-mâché in the Waring blender with a combination of newspaper and water and flour; and he would conduct frequent trips to the neighborhood toy store, sometimes just to browse through the stock and sometimes to buy an item like a cap pistol as a Valentine’s Day present for his wife. To be with him was to be on a constant parranda, either actual or intellectual, and the only person bewildered by it was his children’s nurse, who once said, “I don’t see why Mr. Steinbeck and Mr. Benchley go out to those bars, when there’s all that free liquor at home.” And late at night, over some of the “free” liquor at home, he would sometimes read Synge’s translations of Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura, and then he would weep. It wasn’t the liquor; it was the lilt of Synge’s words and the ache in Petrarch’s heart, and there was one of the sonnets that I never once heard him read through to the end.
You know on my left hand on the pad just below the little finger, I have a dark brown spot. And on my left foot in a corresponding place I have another one almost the same. One time a Chinese, seeing the spot on my hand, became very much excited and when I told him about the one on my foot he was keenly interested. He said that in Chinese palmistry the hand spot was a sign of the greatest possible good luck and the one on my foot doubled it. These spots are nothing but a dark pigmentation. I’ve had them from birth. Indeed, they are what is known as birthmarks. But the reason I brought it up is this. For the last year and a half, they have been getting darker. And if I am to believe in my spots, this must mean that the luck is getting better. And sure enough I have Elaine [Mrs. John Steinbeck] and what better luck could there be. But the spots continue to darken and maybe that means that I am going to have a book, too. And that would be great good luck, too.
ON WORK HABITS
Mark Twain used to write in bed—so did our greatest poet1. But I wonder how often they wrote in bed—or whether they did it twice and the story took hold. Such things happen. Also I would like to know what things they wrote in bed and what tilings they wrote sitting up. All of this has to do with comfort in writing and what its value is. I should think that a comfortable body would let the mind go freely to its gathering.
You know I always smoke a pipe when I work—at least I used to and now I have taken it up again. It is strange—as soon as a pipe begins to taste good, cigarettes become tasteless. I find I smoke fewer and fewer cigarettes. Maybe I can cut them out entirely for a while. This would be a very good thing. Even with this little change, my deep-seated and perennial cigarette cough is going away. A few months without that would be a real relief.
The pipes are tasting very good. I have a feeling to buy a meerschaum and start coloring it as I do this book. Maybe I will do that. By the time the pipe is brown the book should be done. More magics. I think tomorrow I will look for a meerschaum, a small light one. Saw one in a window the other day but I forget where.
I have dawdled away a good part of my free time now carving vaguely on a scrap of mahogany, but I guess I have been thinking too. Who knows. I sit here in a kind of a stupor and call it thought.
Now I have taken the black off my desk again, clear down to the wood, and have put a green blotter down. I am never satisfied with my writing surface.
My choice of pencils lies between the black Calculator stolen from Fox Films and this Mongol 2 3/8 F which is quite black and holds its point well—much better in fact than the Fox pencils. I will get six more or maybe four more dozen of them for my pencil tray.
I have found a new kind of pencil—the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too but it is black and soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper.
You know I am really stupid. For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is all right some days is not good another day. For example, yesterday, I used a special pencil soft and fine and it floated over the paper just wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper. So today I need a harder pencil at least for a while. I am using some that are numbered 23. I have my plastic tray you know and in it three kinds of pencils for hard writing days and soft writing days. Only sometimes it changes in the middle of the day, but at least I am equipped for it. I have also some super soft pencils which I do not use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them. And I am not often that way. But when I do have such moments I am prepared. It is always well to be prepared. Pencils are a great expense to me and I hope you know it. I buy them four dozen at a time. When in my normal writing position the metal of the pencil eraser touches my hand, I retire that pencil. Then Tom and Catbird get them. And they need pencils. They need lots of pencils. Then I have this kind of pencil and it is too soft. Whenever you see a thing like that • die point broke. I have fine prejudices, lazy ones and enjoyable ones. It occurs to me that everyone likes or wants to be an eccentric and this is my eccentricity, my pencil trifling. It isn’t a very harmful one. Maybe I have others which are more. The electric pencil sharpener may seem a needless expense and yet I have never had anything that I used more and was more help to me. To sharpen the number of pencils I use every day, I don’t know how many but at least sixty, by a hand sharpener would not only take too long but would tire my hand out. I like to sharpen them all at once and then I never have to do it again that day. So, you will say, I have wasted enough time for one day but I have managed to do something else too. I have lost the sense of rush with which I started this and that is exactly what I intended to do.
My pencils are all short now and I think I will celebrate by getting out twelve new pencils. Sometimes the just pure luxury of long beautiful pencils charges me with energy and invention. We shall see. It means I will have to have more pencils before long though. Would you send me another box. They are Mongol 480 #2 3/8 F round.
Well, here they are and I just sharpened them and oh! Lord I think my pencil sharpener is burning up. And if it is I’ll be sick. I would have to have another one or have this repaired. When my work is done I will open it and see what is wrong. And if I can’t correct it, you are likely to get a long-distance call and a hurry up. However, I may be able to find what is wrong. It just suddenly began to smoke and throw sparks. And it should not go out like this. I deeply depend on it.
In the very early dawn, I felt a fiendish desire to take my electric pencil sharpener apart. It has not been working very well and besides I have always wanted to look at the inside of it. So I did and found that certain misadjustments had been made at the factory. I corrected them, cleaned the machine, oiled it and now it works perfectly for the first time since I have it. There is one reward for not sleeping.
Today is a dawdly day. They seem to alternate. I do a whole of a day’s work and then the next day, flushed with triumph, I dawdle. That’s today. The crazy thing is that I get about the same number of words down either way. This morning I am clutching the pencil very tight and this is not a good tiling. It means I am not relaxed. And in this book I want to be just as relaxed as possible. Maybe that is another reason I am dawdling. I want that calmness to settle on me that feels so good—almost like a robe of cashmere it feels.
It has been a good day of work with no harm in it. I have sat long over the desk and the pencil has felt good in my hand. Outside the sun is very bright and warm and the buds are swelling to a popping size. I guess it is a good thing I became a writer. Perhaps I am too lazy for anything else.
You know I am really a stupid fool. All of these years I have written in a big book because I love the fine paper with lines. But to get the paper I have to take the covers. And I get my wrist burned and very tired after I pass the middle of the page. The rise of an inch makes a very great difference in tiredness. Now after all of these years, it occurs to me that I can just as well take the pages out and write on each sheet separately. Why never before? In this book, which is going to be rebound anyway, I am only now just learning this. It is really stupid of me. However, that’s the way it is. I am going to try to write more than my quota today. I can take all day at it so it doesn’t matter. I don’t think of anything which can interfere with me. Yesterday I ordered a carpenter’s workbench for my room. I have always wanted one and never in my life had one. It is a very strange half life I had. I haven’t the brains of a mud turtle. And maybe it is a good thing. If I had any brains I would blow them out probably. But I am going to have a little workbench just the same, where I can work with my little tools. I love to do that, I really do. There’s a broken chair right now that I really want to get fixed. I had to work out the technique for fixing it because it is the worst broken-up thing you ever saw. Say, I also have to do some rewiring of fixtures in the house. So many tilings to do.
On the third finger of my right hand I have a great callus just from using a pencil for so many hours every day. It has become a big lump by now and it doesn’t ever go away. Sometimes it is very rough and other times, as today, it is as shiny as glass. It is peculiar how touchy one can become about little tilings. Pencils must be round. A hexagonal pencil cuts my fingers after a long day. You see I hold a pencil for about six hours every day. This may seem strange but it is true. I am really a conditioned animal with a conditioned hand.
I am really dawdling today when what I want to write is in my head. It is said that many writers talk their books out and so do not write them. I think I am guilty of this to a large extent. I really talk too much about my work and to anyone who will listen. If I would limit my talk to inventions and keep my big mouth shut about work, there would probably be a good deal more work done.
The callus on my writing finger is very sore today. I may have to sandpaper it down. It is getting too big.
And I have a desire not to work today which I must not indulge. I don’t know why this ferocious discipline but it seems good to me. I repaired my cut finger with nail polish to protect it from the pencil and it is just drying now. That’s why the handwriting is strange. A bandage feels strange but clear nail polish is a fine covering.
The silly truth is that I can take almost any amount of work but I have little tolerance for confusion.
An amazing number of pretty girls are passing by my window. I like pretty girls very much but I am old enough now so that I don’t have to associate with them. And that’s a relief.
I think if I were forbidden by some force to work, I should last a very short time. And I don’t say that morbidly at all. I think perhaps I am one of those lucky mortals whose work and whose life are the same thing. It is rare and fortunate.
Books establish their own pace. This I have found out. As soon as the story starts its style will establish itself. But still I do not think that all the experimenting is wasted that has kept some aliveness. The waggling pencil—the apes with typewriters hitting at a dictionary—this has been all right but it cannot be depended on.
It has been said often that a big book is more important and has more authority than a short book. There are exceptions of course but it is very nearly always true. I have tried to find a reasonable explanation for this and at last have come up with my theory, to wit: The human mind, particularly in the present, is troubled and fogged and bee-stung with a thousand little details from taxes to war worry to the price of meat. All these usually get together and result in a man’s fighting with his wife because that is the easiest channel of relief for inner unrest. Now—we must think of a book as a wedge driven into a man’s personal life. A short book would be in and out quickly. And it is possible for such a wedge to open die mind and do its work before it is withdrawn leaving quivering nerves and cut tissue. A long book, on the other hand, drives in very slowly and if only in point of time remains for a while. Instead of cutting and leaving, it allows the mind to rearrange itself to fit around the wedge. Let’s carry the analogy a little farther. When the quick wedge is withdrawn, the tendency of die mind is quickly to heal itself exactly as it was before the attack. With the long book perhaps die healing has been warped around the shape of the wedge so that when the wedge is finally withdrawn and the book set down, the mind cannot ever be quite what it was before. This is my theory and it may explain the greater importance of a long book. Living with it longer has given it greater force. If this is true a long book, even not so good, is more effective than an excellent short story.
If a man has a too pat style, his reader can after a little time keep ahead of him. I mean the reader will know what is coming by how it is done. And I am trying to remove this possibility by constant change.
There are many things which must not be said but which must be translated into symbols. Robinson Jeffers once said that he wrote witches and devils outside the house in order to prevent their getting in the house. Maybe everyone does that to a certain extent. But again we must not mistake mouse mutterings for earthquakes. That would be a bad mistake.
The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through—not ever much. And 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. There is another kind who pulls in his horizons, drops his mind as one lowers rifle sights. And giving up the impossible he gives up writing. Whether fortunate or unfortunate, this has not happened to me. The same blind effort, the straining and puffing go on in me. And always I hope that a little trickles through. This urge dies hard.
Writing is a very silly business at best. There is a certain ridiculousness about putting down a picture of life. And to add to the joke—one must withdraw for a time from life in order to set down that picture. And third one must distort one’s own way of life in order in some sense to simulate the normal in other lives. Having gone through all this nonsense, what emerges may well be the palest of reflections. Oh! it’s a real horse’s ass business. The mountain labors and groans and strains and the tiniest of rodents come out. And the greatest foolishness of all lies in the fact that to do it at all, the writer must believe that what he is doing is die most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true. If he does not, the work is not worth even what it might otherwise have been.
All this is a preface to the fear and uncertainties which clamber over a man so that in his silly work he thinks he must be crazy because he is so alone. If what he is doing is worth doing—why don’t more people do it? Such questions. But it does seem a desperately futile business and one which must be very humorous to watch. Intelligent people live their lives as nearly on a level as possible—try to be good, don’t worry if they aren’t, hold to such opinions as are comforting and reassuring and throw out those which are not. And in the fullness of their days they die with none of the tearing pain of failure because having tried nothing they have not failed. These people are much more intelligent than the fools who rip themselves to pieces on nonsense.
It is the fashion now in writing to have every man defeated and destroyed. And I do not believe all men are destroyed. I can name a dozen who were not and they are die ones the world lives by. It is true of the spirit as it is of battles—the defeated are forgotten, only the winners come themselves into the race. The writers of today, even I, have a tendency to celebrate the destruction of the spirit and god knows it is destroyed often enough. But the beacon tiring is that sometimes it is not. And I think I can take time right now to say that. There will be great sneers from the neurosis belt of the south, from the hard-boiled writers, but I believe that the great ones, Plato, Lao Tze, Buddha, Christ, Paul, and the great Hebrew prophets are not remembered for negation or denial. Not that it is necessary to be remembered but there is one purpose in writing that I can see, beyond simply doing it interestingly. It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage. If the written word has contributed anything at all to our developing species and our half developed culture, it is this: Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult, a wisdom to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. And how any negative or despairing approach can pretend to be literature I do not know. It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth, and a few remnants of fossilized jaw bones, a few teeth in strata of limestone would be the only mark our species would have left on the earth. Now this I must say and say right here and so sharply and so memorably that it will not be forgotten in the rather terrible and disheartening tilings which are to come in this book; so that although East of Eden is not Eden, it is not insuperably far away.
It is too bad we have not more humor about this. After all it is only a book and no worlds are made or destroyed by it. But it becomes important out of all proportion to its importance. And I suppose that is essential. The dunghill beetle must be convinced of the essential quality in rolling his ball of dung, and a golfer will not be any good at it unless striking a little ball is the most important thing in the world. So I must be convinced that this book is a pretty rare event and I must have little humor about it. Can’t afford to have. The story has to move on and on and on and on. It is like a machine now—set to do certain tilings. And it is about to clank to its end.
I truly do not care about a book once it is finished. Any money or fame that results has no connection in my feeling with the book. The book dies a real death for me when I write the last word. I have a little sorrow and then go on to a new book which is alive. The rows of my books on the shelf are to me like very well embalmed corpses. They are neither alive nor mine. I have no sorrow for them because I have forgotten them, forgotten in its truest sense.
Words are strange elusive things and no man may permanently stick them on pins or mount them in glass cases. The academies have tried that and have only succeeded in killing the words.
It is hard to open up a person and to look inside. There is even a touch of decent reluctance about privacy but writers and detectives cannot permit the luxury of privacy. In this book I have opened lots of people and some of them are going to be a little bit angry. But I can’t help that. Right now I can’t think of any work which requires concentration for so long a time as a big novel.
Why do men do things which seem off pattern? I don’t think they do. I think if you look back in a man’s life you will find both a cause and a parallel. People do not change very much.
Sometimes I have a vision of human personality as a kind of foetid jungle full of monsters and daemons and little lights. It seemed to me a dangerous place to venture, a little like those tunnels at Coney Island where “things” leap out screaming. I have been accused so often of writing about abnormal people.
It would be a great joke on the people in my book if I just left them high and dry, waiting for me. If they bully me and do what they choose I have them over a barrel. They can’t move until I pick up a pencil. They are frozen, turned to ice standing one foot up and with the same smile they had yesterday when I stopped.
It is the custom nowadays in writing to tell nothing about a character but to let him emerge gradually through the story and the dialogue. This is what you might even call the modem fashionable method. But I don’t have to do this. Using my method which is neither new nor old-fashioned, I can tell everything I can about a character but not only that, I can analyze and even say what I think about the character. Then if that person also comes through in the action and dialogue, one is pretty far ahead. I am not trying to fool my reader nor to trick him any more than I would want to fool the little boys to whom this book is ostensibly written. It took three years of puzzled thinking to work out this plan for a book.
As you know the novel has been falling before the onslaught of non-fiction. That is largely because the novel has not changed for a very long time now. Sherwood Anderson made the modem novel and it has not gone much beyond him. I think I am going beyond him.
There’s just too much to put down and that can’t be left out. Elaine complains that Carson McCullers always gets tired and tries to resolve a book in a page.
An author is an entertainer with tail feathers.
This morning I looked at the Saturday Review, read a few notices of recent books, not mine, and came up with the usual sense of horror. One should be a reviewer or better a critic, these curious sucker fish who live with joyous vicariousness on other men’s work and discipline with dreary words the tiling which feeds them. I don’t say that writers should not be disciplined, but I could wish that the people who appoint themselves to do it were not quite so much of a pattern both physically and mentally.
I have noticed so many of the reviews of my work show a fear and a hatred of ideas and speculations. It seems to be true that people can only take parables fully clothed with flesh. Any attempt to correlate in terms of thought is frightening. And if that is so, East of Eden is going to take a bad beating because it is full of such things.
I’ve always tried out my material on my dogs first. You know, with Angel, he sits there and listens and I get the feeling he understands every tiling. But with Charley, I always felt he was just waiting to get a word in edgewise. Years ago, when my red setter chewed up the manuscript of Of Mice and Men, I said at the time that the dog must have been an excellent literary critic.
Time is the only critic without ambition.
Give a critic an inch, he’ll write a play.
I am sure, after all of our years together, you will not ask me to make one single change for the sake of sales except in terms of clarity. I am not writing for money any more now than I ever did. If money comes that is fine, but if I knew right now that this book would not sell a thousand copies, I would still write it. I want you to remember that. I have not changed in that respect even a little bit.
I have never been a title man. I don’t give a damn what it is called. I would call it [East of Eden] Valley to the Sea which is a quotation from absolutely nothing but has two great words and a direction. What do you think of that? And I’m not going to think about it any more.
My greatest fault, at least to me, is my lack of ability for relaxation. I do not remember ever having been relaxed in my whole life. Even in sleep I am tight and restless and I awaken so quickly at any change or sound. It is not a good thing. It would be fine to relax. I think I got this through my father. I remember his restlessness. It sometimes filled die house to a howling although he did not speak often. He was a singularly silent man—first I suppose because he had few words and second because he had no one to say them to. He was strong rather than profound. Cleverness only confused him—and this is interesting—he had no ear for music whatever. Patterns of music were meaningless to him. I often wonder about him. In my struggle to be a writer, it was he who supported and backed me and explained me—not my mother. She wanted me desperately to be something decent like a banker. She would have liked me to be a successful writer like Tarkington but this she didn’t believe I could do. But my father wanted me to be myself. Isn’t that odd. He admired anyone who laid down his fine and followed it undeflected to the end. I think this was because he abandoned his star in little duties and let his head go under in the swirl of family and money and responsibility. To be anything pure requires an arrogance he did not have, and a selfishness he could not bring himself to assume. He was a man intensely disappointed in himself. And I think he liked the complete ruthlessness of my design to be a writer in spite of mother and hell. Anyway he was the encourager. Mother always thought I would get over it and come to my senses. And the failure of all the Hamiltons might be that they came to their senses.
After the theatre we went to Sardi’s and had dinner and saw many friends. It is so long since we have been out that it was fun, but somewhere I picked up a great sadness. I think it was from John O’Hara. That is the only thing I can think of which could have caused it. And it has persisted all day today. I have not worked today because I was afraid my book would take on the quality of my sadness. So far I have been singularly free of personal feelings and emotions which can so easily taint a book. I’ll work tomorrow and maybe Sunday too so my word rate will keep up. But that is not important.
I don’t think I ever told you this but once in college I went flibberty geblut and got to going to the library and reading what I wanted instead of what was required. I got behind and then I got so far behind that I could not possibly catch up. And I still have bad dreams about that. It must have cut a very deep channel.
There are two roads to privacy—smallpox and poverty.
A man will break his ass to avoid trouble, forgetting that a broken ass is troublesome.
I can remember Monday in Salinas. How I hated it! My will toward death was very great when I was growing up. I remember the screened window of my room looking out on grey fog and beyond that a grey school and grey week—and I hated having to pass that gateway into the week. It is not so now. I look forward to Mondays. The death wish is not so strong as it used to be and maybe some time it will disappear entirely. Or maybe this is too much to hope for.
It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.
ON THE ART OF WRITING
The time now comes finally to move the book. I have dawdled enough. But it has been a good tiling. I don’t yet know what the word rate will be. That will depend on many tilings. But I do think the hour rate should be fairly constant. I am about finished with these long and characteristic meanderings. It is with real fear that I go to the other. And I must forget even that I want it to be good. Such things belong only in the planning stage. Once it starts, it should not have any intention save only to be written. All is peace now. And all is quiet. What little things there are, are here and good. Posture and attitude are so very important. And since these tilings have to go on for a very long time, they must become almost a way of life and a habit of thought. So that no one may say, I lost by being lost. This is the last bounce on the board, the last look into the pool. The time has come for the dive. The time has really come.
I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one. It is as though the words were not only indelible but that they spread out like dye in water and color everything around them. A strange and mystic business, writing. Almost no progress has taken place since it was invented. The Book of the Dead is as good and as highly developed as anything in the 20th century and much better than most. And yet in spite of this lack of a continuing excellence, hundreds of thousands of people are in my shoes— praying feverishly for relief from their word pangs.
I learned long ago that you cannot tell how you will end by how you start. I just glanced up this page for instance. Look at the writing at the top—ragged and angular with pencils breaking in every line, measured as a laboratory rat and tom with nerves and fear. And just half an hour later it has smoothed out and changed considerably for the better.
Now I had better get into today’s work. It is full of strange and secret things, tilings which should strike deep into the unconscious like those experimental stories I wrote so long ago. Those too were preparation for this book and I am using the lessons I’ve learned in all the other writing.
I have often thought that this might be my last book. I don’t really mean that because I will be writing books until I die. But I want to write this one as though it were my last book. Maybe I believe that every book should be written that way.
I hope I can keep all the reins in my hands and at the same time make it sound as though the book were almost accidental. That is going to be hard to do but it must be done. Also I’ll have to lead into the story so gradually that my reader will not know what is happening to him until he is caught. That is the reason for the casual—even almost flippant—sound. It’s like a man setting a trap for a fox and pretending with pantomime that he doesn’t know there is a fox or a trap in the country.
There is a key and there are many leads. I think you will discover die story rather quickly for all of its innocent sound on these pages. Now the innocent sound and the slight concealment arenot done as tricks but simply so that a man can take from this book as much as he can bring to it. It would not be well to confuse an illiterate man with the statement of a rather profound philosophy. On the other hand, such a man might take pleasure in the surface story and even understand the other things in his unconscious. On the third hand—and I have three—your literate and understanding man will take joy of finding the secrets hidden in this book almost as though he searched for treasure, but we must never tell anyone they arehere. Let them be found by accident. I have made the mistake of telling my readers before and I will never make that mistake again.
I don’t know why writers are never given credit for knowing their craft. Years after I have finished a book, someone discovers my design and ascribes it either to a [theft?] or an accident.
There is one other thing about this book different from any I have ever done. Of course I am doing the best work I can but I am not taking myself too seriously. This is no assault on Parnassus. I am not putting grappling hooks into immortality. It is just a book—the best I can do with the equipment and training I have. And I’m pretty sure if I knew no one in the world would ever read it, I would still do it. I wonder whether that last is true. It seems so to me but being sure what one would do in a situation one hasn’t experienced is rather silly. And if it is true, why am I so anxious to know what you arc getting out of it and whether you approve or disapprove. Still—I think I would write it any way.
The human mind I believe is nothing but a muscle. Sometimes it has tone and sometimes not. And mine is not in very good tone right now. It is jumbled and slow and like a bad child. It refuses to obey me. I tell it to do something and it won’t. In a short time now I will be angry with it and then it had better watch out. I am a hard master of the mind. I don’t know. I don’t know. Things operate so strangely. The fact of the matter is that I have several things on my mind at once and that poor instrument cannot take the overload.
I feel that sometimes when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness. Then time does change its manner and minutes disappear into the cloud of time which is one thing, having only one duration. I have thought that if we could put off our duration-preoccupied minds, it might be that time has no duration at all. Then all history and all prehistory might indeed be one durationless flash like an exploding star, eternal and without duration.
In the book I have reached a place of great difficulty. You sec I want to make a lunge forward in time for the sake of design and still I want to maintain an even steady flow. These two don’t go together very well. I’ll have to work it out. And I will of course. Perhaps the best way is the most direct way. And you know, all this might well be a deep psychic cry of laziness finding channels of escape from work. I think I will go after it on that basis. Heaven knows I’ve got plenty of it. My brain just doesn’t want to tackle it today and if I let it get away with it, tomorrow it will have another excuse. My brain is very treacherous and I do not dare to give it any freedom to wander.
I can’t seem to get hold of myself today. My mind is like a god damned animal. If it gets out it is very hard to catch. I’ve had it in chains for quite a long time and now I’ll have to get a net over it. It’s flying away. I feel like such a fool, but there it is. Maybe I will kick over the tracks today. Maybe fighting it is no good and I should let it ride. The time is late and it will be difficult. I’m being real difficult to myself. I know I’ll pick up confidence but I don’t have much now. Maybe that would be a good idea. I haven’t rested for three weeks now and maybe that is it. I might just be tired.
They say, and I expect truly, that if a man could see his whole life, he would never live it. He would kill himself instantly. Something like this happens on the week-end days when I do not work. I lift my eyes out of the details of the little day’s work and a panic crashes on me. The size and the difficulty rise up and smack me. And yet it is necessary to look at the whole thing now and then. It’s like swimming with your head down or up. It cuts your speed to raise your head but at least you know where you are going.
I wish I knew how people do good and long-sustained work and still keep all kinds of other lives going—social, economic, etc. I can’t. I seem to have to waste time, so much dawdling to so much work. I am frightened by this week before it even happens. If I had any sense I would leave my book this week. But that would not be good because it would divorce me from its rhythm and it would take too long to come back to it. So I’ll simply get as much done as I can and work as long as is feasible.
Last night an evil came on me. I planned, laughing behind my hand, to play hooky today and go fishing and pick up my work on Saturday. My course was set and my criminal path taken. And then this morning was an overcast and windy sky. The very forces of nature conspired to keep me pure. But being pressured into virtue, I am having a very hard time getting started today. I wish I had been allowed to be the sinner I wanted to be. Maybe I need some sin.
I split myself into three people. I know what they look like. One speculates and one criticizes and the third tries to correlate. It usually turns out to be a fight but out of it comes the whole week’s work. And it is carried on in my mind in dialogue. It’s an odd experience. Under such circumstances it might be one of those schizophrenic symptoms but as a working technique, I do not think it is bad at all.
I have a kind of weariness from living three lives at once and now and then I get a little confused trying to keep them separate. And believe me this takes some doing. I wish I felt better today. And I do in everything but my mind and that is a little sick today. It is probably one of those curious cycles which in the female results in menstruation and in the male causes those depths of depression bordering on die manic. It is probable that both have a rhythm printed some time on the species by some great impressive force of nature. But the fact that such a force is withdrawn does not make it any less. Maybe I will come out of it. Surely such a feeling changes the world around one.
Since Thoreau’s time, desperation has grown noisier.
If East of Eden continues on schedule I will finish just about when I thought I would. I started active work on Feb. 19 so it is just a little over two months. At that rate the book should only take 8 months and should be done by die first of November, but that is allowing for no accidents whatever and it would be an odd year when something drastic did not happen. I am allowing two months for accidents and will figure to be done by Christmas. But I am not going to speed up. I just can’t do it and keep with it for that length of time. Two of these pages is just about right for the pace of this book. And it is odd how every book has its own pace. The Grapes of Wrath was headlong. I don’t want East of Eden to be. Slow and easy does it. I must say that I think of very little else now. I repainted my table and it is not quite dry so I am writing on a cardboard cover today.
Let me inspect then the book itself. It must be nearly 500 pages by now. It started by saying, “I’m going to tell you how things were then.” Now, has it done that? I don’t know. I just don’t know. It left customs and clothes and habits and went deeply into people but I think that is very good rather than bad. For customs are only the frame for people. You can’t write a book about customs unless it is a treatise. And I don’t want a treatise. I want the participation of my reader. I want him to be so involved that it will be his story.
I feel just worthless today. I have to drive myself. I have used every physical excuse not to work except fake illness. I have dawdled, gone to the toilet innumerable times, had many glasses of water. Really childish. I know that one of the reasons is that I dread the next scene, dread it like hell. You will know why when you read it because there isn’t any doubt that I will get it done today. I do not often permit myself to get away with nonsense.
Now yesterday’s work—the end of the birth is done. And I wonder if you have noticed the incredible details about human birth. I wonder on the other hand whether you will have noticed that you furnished every one of those details yourself. I’ve given you only people and their reactions. But if I have done it well enough you have actually seen the double birth in your own mind. No detail is written. I think it is pretty good and I hope the sense of danger got into it. The real foreboding should rest on it like a crow on a fence. And I am going to have to change tempo now. Today it starts swinging into the end. It will move fast now. It has to reach its climax. And I don’t know why I fool around with this when I could be working on it and by god I will. I am peculiarly dangerous today.
I am learning many things—some of them not very flattering to me, but all of them important. I am learning how specialized I am and also that the degree of specialization is also the degree of limitations. Let me give you an example of what I mean. When I work on a book to this extent and with this concentration, it means that I am living another life. As it goes along, increasingly I give to the second life more than to the first. Then I must be very hard to live with in real life, not because I am mean but because I am vague. Things ordinarily done are forgotten. My expression must be one of fogged stupidity—my responses slow. It is during this time that a woman gets first restless, then uneasy, then angry. I don’t know what to do about it but there it is. And a book like this goes on for such a long time. You can read it in a few days but it takes years to think and write. It must be a great chore to live with if you are not writing it. This time I am making a distinct and constant effort to keep both lives going but even then I forget. But anyway I am trying. There is one other thing—die function which at a distance seems romantic and colorful must on daily contact become dull and usual and machine-like. It is bound to. And finally it may become a rival, an enemy. This is not inevitable but it has happened to me twice.
Oh! Lord, I feel good! It scares me a little. As though it could not last. Well, it does last a little. Do you remember the critic, I think it was Sterling North, who gave me hell in a review because I was working in an air-conditioned office? I’ll bet he would hate me for feeling good too. He would think I am not suffering enough. And maybe I am not.
This book is doing remarkable things to and for me. My memory is sharpened and tightened and sometimes the feel of words is like a round and warm emotion. It is impossible to describe the feeling but it is like a party feeling and good like afternoon feeling.
I do indeed seem to feel creative juices rushing toward an outlet as semen gathers from the four quarters of a man and fights its way into the vesicle. I hope something beautiful and true comes out—but this I know (and the likeness to coition still holds). Even if I knew nothing would emerge from this book I would still write it. It seems to me that different organisms must have their separate ways of symbolizing, with sound or gesture, the creative joy—the flowering. And if this is so, men also must have their separate ways—some to laugh and some to build, some to destroy and yes, some even creatively to destroy themselves. There’s no explaining this. The joy thing in me has two outlets: one a fine charge of love toward the incredibly desirable body and sweetness of woman and second—mostly both—the paper and pencil or pen. And it is interesting to think what paper and pencil and the wriggling words are. They are nothing but the trigger into joy—the shout of beauty—the cacajada of the pure bliss of creation. And often the words do not even parallel the feeling except sometimes in intensity. Thus a man full of a bursting joy may write with force and vehemence of some sad picture—of the death of beauty or the destruction of a lovely town—and there is only the effectiveness to prove how great and beautiful was his feeling.
A very curious thing happened last night. I have been working so close to this story and last night I had a dream about the part to be written today, so complicated, so foreign and strange that I have great difficulty in shaking it off. The dream and the reality won’t seem to separate. I’m afraid I’m going to have great difficulty with that. It is very hard. Maybe I am not really enough awake yet. Too bad. The damned dream was so convincing but it just didn’t belong to this book.
My work does not coagulate. It is as unmanageable as a raw egg on the kitchen floor. It makes me crazy. I am really going to try now and I’m afraid that the very force of the trying will take all the life out of the work. I don’t know where this pest came from but I know it is not new.
We work in our own darkness a great deal with little real knowledge of what we are doing. I drink I know better what I am doing than most writers but it still isn’t much.
I guess I am terrified to write finish on the book for fear I myself will be finished.
Suddenly I feel lonely in a curious kind of way. I guess I am afraid. That always comes near the end of a book—the fear that you have not accomplished what you started to do. That is as natural as breathing.
In a short time that will be done and then it will not be mine any more. Other people will take it over and own it and it will drift away from me as though I had never been a part of it. I dread that time because one can never pull it back, it’s like shouting good-bye to someone going off in a bus and no one can hear because of the roar of the motor.
1Mr. Benchley believes this is probably Stevenson.