Issue 63, Fall 1975
This winter, The Viking Press will publish the fourth volume 0f Writers at Work, continuing its collections of interviews on the craft of fiction from The Paris Review. Included will be the “interview” with John Steinbeck which was published in the Fall 1969, number 48 of The Paris Review. As is recounted in the introduction, Steinbeck had hoped to do a recorded interview with the magazine, but kept postponing it until his death put an end to the matter altogether. In respect to his evinced hope to have something in the magazine on the subject, a composite of material on the craft of his writing was assembled, mostly from his diary kept during the creation of East of Eden (published in December, 1969 by The Viking Press under the title Journey of a Novel).
Since then, much additional material on the subject has been unearthed during the compiling of Steinbeck’s letters (to be published this fall by The Viking Press under the title Steinbeck: A Life in Letters). The “interview” to be published in Writers at Work will incorporate much of this new material some of it not in the collected letters. In some cases, we have substituted letters for material published in the original “interview.”
These new sections appear herewith—the quotes organized under topic headings rather than chronologically, as they are in the diaries.
ON GETTING STARTED
It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.
—From a letter to Pascal Covici, April 13, 1956
Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.
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 theatre, 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.
—From a letter to Robert Wallsten,
I hear via a couple of attractive grapevines that you are having trouble writing. God! I know this feeling so well. I think it is never coming back—but it does—one morning, there it is again.
About a year ago. Bob Anderson [the playwright] asked me for help in the same problem. I told him to write poetry—not for selling—not even for seeing—poetry to throw away. For poetry is the mathematics of writing and closely kin to music. And it is also the best therapy because sometimes the troubles come tumbling out.
Well, he did. For six months he did. And I have three joyous letters from him saying it worked. Just poetry—anything and not designed for a reader. It’s a great and valuable privacy.
I only offer this if your dryness goes on too long and makes you too miserable. You may come out of it any day. I have. The words are fighting each other to get out.
—From a letter to Robert Wallsten,
February 19, 1960.
Certain events such as love, or a national calamity, or May, bring pressure to bear on the individual, and if the pressure is strong enough, something in the form of verse is bound to be squeezed out. National calamities and loves have been few in my life, and I do not always succumb to May.
My first gem called forth quite adverse criticism, although I considered it extremely apropos at the time. It was published on a board fence, and was in the form of free verse. It ran something like this:
Gertie loves Tom, and
Tom loves Gertie.
This is the only one of my brain children which has attracted attention, and the attention it attracted has made me backward about publishing any of my later works.
—From a letter to Professor
William Herbert Carruth, early 1920’s.
ON THE SHORT STORY
Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in your class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyed and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb from you the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories.
You canceled this illusion very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, you said, was to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, you told us, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.
The basic rule you gave us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from writer to reader and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, you said, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and technique at all—so long as it was effective.
As a subhead to this rule, you maintained that it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of a story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three or six or ten thousand words.
So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that you set us on the desolate lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades you gave my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterwards upheld your side, not mine.
It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done, thanks to your training. Why could I not do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.
It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who is not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.
I wonder whether you will remember one last piece of advice you gave me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic Twenties and I was going out into that world to tryto be a writer.
You said, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”
It wasn’t too long afterwards that the depression came down. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame any more. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely you were right about one thing, Edith. It took a long time—a very long time. And it is still going on and it has never got easier. You told me it wouldn’t.
—From a letter to Edith Mirrielees,
March 8, 1962
ON HACK WRITING
I think the manuscript [“Murder at Full Noon”] enclosed in this package is self-explanatory. For some time now, I have been unhappy. The reason is that I have a debt and it is making me miserable.
It is quite obvious that people do not want to buy the things I have been writing. Therefore, to make the money I need, I must write the things they want to read. In other words, I must sacrifice artistic integrity for a little while to personal integrity. Remember this when this manuscript makes you sick. And remember that it makes me a great deal sicker than it does you.
Conrad said that only two things sold, the very best and the very worst. From my recent efforts, it has been borne to me that I am not capable of writing the very best yet. I have no doubt that I shall be able to in the future, but at present, I cannot. It remains to be seen whether I can write the very worst.
I will tell you a little bit about the enclosed ms. It was written complete in nine days. It is about sixty two or three thousand words long. It took two weeks to type. In it I have included all the cheap rackets I know of, and have tried to make it stand up by giving it a slightly burlesque tone. No one but my wife and my folks know that I have written it, and no one except you will know. I see no reason why a nom de plume should not be respected and maintained. The nom deplume I have chosen is Peter Pym.
The story holds water better than most, and I think it has a fairish amount of mystery. The burlesqued bits, which were put in mostly to keep my stomach from turning every time I sat down at the typewriter, may come out.
—From a letter to Amasa Miller,
You know I was born without any sense of competition. This is a crippling thing in many ways. I don’t gamble because it is meaningless. I used to throw the javelin far, but I never really cared whether it was farthest. For a while I was a vicious fighter but it wasn’t to win. It was to get it over and get the hell out of there. And I never would have done it at all if other people hadn’t put me in the ring. The only private fights I ever had were those I couldn’t get away from. Consequently I have never even wondered about the comparative standing of writers. I don’t understand that. Writing to me is a deeply personal, even a secret function and when the product is turned loose it is cut off from me and I have no sense of its being mine. Consequently criticism doesn’t mean anything to me. As a disciplinary matter, it is too late.
—From a letter to John O ’Hara,
June 8, 1949
Although some times I have felt that I held fire in my hands and spread a page with shining—I have never lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability.
A book is like a man—clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.
Well—then the book is done. It has no virtue any more. The writer wants to cry out—“Bring it back! Let me rewrite it or better—Let me burn it. Don’t let it out in the unfriendly cold in that condition.”
As you know better than most, Pat, the book does not go from writer to reader. It goes first to the lions—editors, publishers, critics, copy readers, sales department. It is kicked and slashed and gouged. And its bloodied father stands attorney.
The book is out of balance. The reader expects one thing and you give him something else. You have written two books and stuck them together. The reader will not understand.
No, sir. It goes together. I have written about one family and used stories about another family as—well, as counterpoint, as rest, as contrast in pace and color.
The reader won’t understand. What you call counterpoint only slows the book.
It has to be slowed—else how would you know when it goes fast?
You have stopped the book and gone into discussions of God knows what.
Yes, I have. I don’t know why. Just wanted to. Perhaps I was wrong.
The book’s too long. Costs are up. We’ll have to charge five dollars for it. People won’t pay $5. They won’t buy it.
My last book was short. You said then that people won’ t buy a short book.
The chronology is full of holes. The grammar has no relation to English. On page so and so you have a man look in the World Almanac for steamship rates. They aren’t there. I checked. You’ve got Chinese New Year wrong. The characters aren’t consistent. You describe Liza Hamilton one way and then have her act a different way.
You make Cathy too black. The reader won’t believe her. You make Sam Hamilton too white. The reader won’t believe him. No Irishman ever talked like that.
My grandfather did.
Who’ll believe it?
No children ever talked like that.
(Losing temper as a refuge from despair.)
God damn it. This is my book. I’ll make the children talk any way I want. My book is about good and evil. Maybe the theme got into the execution. Do you want to publish it or not?
Let’s see if we can’t fix it up. It won’t be much work. You want it to be good, don’t you? For instance, the ending. The reader won’t understand it.
Yes, but the reader won’t.
My God, how you do dangle a participle. Turn to page so and so.
There you are, Pat. You came in with a box of glory and there you stand with an arm full of damp garbage.
And from this meeting a new character has emerged. He is called The Reader.
He is so stupid you can’t trust him with an idea.
He is so clever he will catch you in the least error.
He will not buy short books.
He will not buy long books.
He is part moron, part genius and part ogre.
There is some doubt as to whether he can read.
—From a letter to Pascal Covici,
ON HAVING A WRITER IN THE FAMILY
This is sad news, but I can’t think of a thing you can do about it. I can remember the horror which came over my parents when they became convinced that it was so with me—and properly so. What you have and they had to look forward to is life made intolerable by a mean, cantankerous, opinionated, moody, quarrelsome, unreasonable, nervous, flighty, irresponsible son. You will get no loyalty, little consideration and desperately little attention from him. In fact you will want to kill him. I’m sure my father and mother often must have considered poisoning me. There will be no ease for you or for him. He won’t even have the decency to be successful or if he is, he will pick at it as though it were failure for it is one of the traits of this profession that it always fails if the writer is any good. And Dennis [Dennis Murphy] is not only a writer but I am dreadfully afraid a very good one.
I hasten to offer Marie and you my sympathy but I must also warn you that you are helpless. Your function as a father from now on will be to get him out of jail, to nurture him just short of starvation, to watch in despair while he seems to be irrational—and your reward for all this will be to be ignored at best and insulted and vilified at worst. Don’t expect to understand him, because he doesn’t understand himself. Don’t, for God’s sake, judge him by ordinary rules of human virtue or vice or failings. Every man has his price but the price of a writer, a real one, is very hard to find and almost impossible to implement. My best advice to you is to stand aside, to roll with the punch and particularly to protect your belly. If you are contemplating killing him, you had better do it soon or it will be too late. I can see no peace for him and little for you. You can deny relationship. There are lots of Murphys.
—From a letter to John Murphy,
February 21, 1957
I think of a number of pieces which should be done but that I as a novelist can’t or should not do. One would be on the ridiculous preoccupation of my great contemporaries, and I mean Faulkner and Hemingway, with their own immortality. It is almost as though they were fighting for billing on the tombstone.
Another thing I could not write and you can is about the Nobel Prize. I should be scared to death to receive it, I don’t care how coveted it is. But I can’t say that because I have not received it. But it has seemed to me that the receivers never do a good nor courageous piece of work afterwards. It kind of retires them. I don’t know whether this is because their work was over anyway or because they try to live up to the prize and lose their daring or what. But it would be a tough hazard to overcome and most of them don’t. Maybe it makes them respectable and a writer can’t dare to be respectable. The same thing goes for any kind of honorary degrees and decorations. A man’s writing becomes less good with the numbers of his honors. It might be that fear in me that has made me refuse those L.L.D.’s that are constantly being put out by colleges. It may also be the reason why I have never been near the Academy even though I was elected to it. It may also be the reason I gave my Pulitzer money away.
—Six years after this extract from a 1956 letter to Pascal
Covici Jr., Steinbeck himself won the Nobel Prize.
The first thing we heard of Ernest Hemingway’s death was a call from the London Daily Mail, asking me to comment on it. And quite privately, although something of this sort might be expected, I find it shocking. He had only one theme—only one. A man contends with the forces of the world, called fate, and meets them with courage. Surely a man has a right to remove his own life but you’ll find no such possibility in any of H’s heroes. The sad thing is that I think he would have hated accident much more than suicide. He was an incredibly vain man. An accident while cleaning a gun would have violated everything he was vain about. To shoot yourself with a shotgun in the head is almost impossible unless it is planned. Most such deaths happen when a gun falls, and then the wound is usually in the abdomen. A practiced man does not load a gun while cleaning it. Indeed a hunting man would never have a loaded gun in the house. There are shotguns over my mantle but the shells are standing on the shelf below. The guns are cleaned when they are brought in and you have to unload a gun to clean it. H had a contempt for mugs. And only a mug would have such an accident. On the other hand, from what I’ve read, he seems to have undergone a personality change in the last year or so. Certainly his last summer in Spain and the resulting reporting in Life were not in his old manner. Perhaps, as Paul de Kruif told me, he had had a series of strokes. That would account for the change.
But apart from all that—he has had the most profound effect on writing—more than anyone I can think of. He has not a vestige of humor. It’s a strange life. Always he tried to prove something. And you only try to prove what you aren’t sure of. He was the critics’ darling because he never changed style, theme nor story. He made no experiments in thinking nor in emotion. A little like Capa (1) he created an ideal image of himself and then tried to live it. I am saddened at his death. I never knew him well, met him a very few times and he was always pleasant and kind to me although I am told that privately he spoke very disparagingly of my efforts. But then he thought of other living writers not as contemporaries but as antagonists. He really cared about his immortality as though he weren’t sure of it. And there’s little doubt that he has it.
One thing interests me very much. For a number of years he has talked about a big book he was writing and then about several books written and put away for future publication. I have never believed these books exist and will be astonished if they do. A writer’s first impulse is to let someone read it. Of course I may be wrong and he may be the exception. For the London Daily Express, I have two lines by a better writer than either of us. They go—
“He was a man, take him all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.”
And since he was called Papa—the lines are doubly applicable.
—From a letter to Pascal Covici,
July 1, 1961
It’s nice over here because every place you look is a view. Most of them ruins—you can’t find who built them or when or why. It makes ambition seem a little ridiculous. I’ve written a lot of books and some are very nice or have some nice things in them. And it’s nice to be asked how it felt to write God’s Little Acre and Farewell to Arms.
—From a letter to Elia Kazan,
Nice, France, November 22, 1961
Little presses write to me for manuscripts and when I write back that I haven’t any, they write to ask if they can print the letter saying I haven’t any.
—From a letter to Elizabeth Otis,
I have owed you this letter for a very long time—but my fingers have avoided the pencil as though it were an old and poisoned tool
(1) Robert Capa, the famous Life photographer.
*To Elizabeth Otis, his agent—found long after his death under the blotter on his work table by his wife, Elaine Steinbeck.