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Six Tips on Writing from John Steinbeck

On the value of unconscious association, or why the best advice is no advice.

If this is indeed the year of reading more and writing better, we’ve been right on course with David Ogilvy’s 10 no-nonsense tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, and various invaluable advice from other great writers.

Now comes Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) with six tips on writing, originally set down in a 1962 letter to the actor and writer Robert Wallsten included in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Steinbeck’s advice on falling in love.

Steinbeck counsels:

  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.

But perhaps most paradoxically yet poetically, twelve years prior — in 1963, immediately after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception” — Steinbeck issued a thoughtful disclaimer to all such advice:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced 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. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that make a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”

If you’re bold enough to defy Steinbeck’s anti-advice advice, you can do so with these nine essential books on more and writing. Find more timeless counsel on the craft in the collected wisdom of great writers, then see how Steinbeck used his diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt.

Open Culture

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John Steinbeck on Falling in Love: A 1958 Letter of Advice to His Lovesick Teenage Son

“If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

Nobel laureate John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) might be best-known as the author of East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men, but he was also a prolific letter-writer. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) constructs an alternative biography of the iconic author through some 850 of his most thoughtful, witty, honest, opinionated, vulnerable, and revealing letters to family, friends, his editor, and a circle of equally well-known and influential public figures.

Among his correspondence is this beautiful response to his eldest son Thom’s 1958 letter, in which the teenage boy confesses to have fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan while at boarding school. Steinbeck’s words of wisdom — tender, optimistic, timeless, infinitely sagacious — should be etched onto the heart and mind of every living, breathing human being.

New York
November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

Love,

Fa

Complement the altogether magnificent Steinbeck: A Life in Letters with the beloved writer on the creative spirit and the meaning of life, the art of changing one’s mind, and his six tips on writing.

via Letters of Note

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John McPhee on Writing and the Relationship Between Artistic Originality and Self-Doubt

“Never stop battling for the survival of your own unique stamp.”

John McPhee on Writing and the Relationship Between Artistic Originality and Self-Doubt

“I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were.” So wrote John Steinbeck as he was working on the book that earned him a Pulitzer and paved the way for his Nobel Prize. “I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability,” he exorcised the demon of self-doubt in his diary — the demon that discomposes every writer until, as Virginia Woolf observed while revolutionizing literature with Orlando, they no longer know whether they are “the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.” Few are the Whitmans who can proclaim: “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood.” Even Whitman was not a Whitman but many Whitmans, fractured and dissonant — even for him, this was but one multitude speaking; another, in the very verses that prompted the divinest genius in him to cry out in such self-celebration, whispered this universal assurance:

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?

How to live with the dark patches of self-doubt, how to regard their umbra not as an obstacle on the path to good writing but as the path itself, is what John McPhee addresses in a portion of one of those supremely rare, supremely helpful meta-masterworks of literature, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (public library).

John McPhee (Photograph: Princeton University)

From the hard-conquered promontory of his half-century contributorship for The New Yorker, he looks back on his early days as a freelancer, still adrift in the torrents of self-doubt despite his early successes:

In some twenty months, I had submitted half a dozen pieces, short and long, and the editor, William Shawn, had bought them all. You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed.

Considering what helped him through the disorientation of self-doubt, what helps anyone, he adds:

Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help. The help is spoken and informal, and includes insight, encouragement, and reassurance with regard to a current project.

But whatever the hue and texture of self-doubt may be, McPhee argues, its very presence is evidence of correctly calibrated creative aspiration:

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists? And unless you can identify what is not succeeding — unless you can see those dark clunky spots that are giving you such a low opinion of your prose as it develops — how are you going to be able to tone it up and make it work?

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In consonance with Rachel Carson’s insistence that “if you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in… you will interest other people” — a downright countercultural orientation in our era of catering to ever-lowering existing tastes rather than elevating and cultivating new sensibilities, new interests, new frames of reference — McPhee shines a sidewise gleam on the relationship between self-doubt and originality. Resonating between the lines of this excellent part-manual part-memoir of writing, reverberating throughout his own symphonic body of work, is the subtle, splendid assurance that self-doubt is a function of daring to try the untried, daring to move beyond the template and the formula that leave little room for doubt and rise to the challenge of the unexampled. Whatever improvements may be made on your writing — stylistically or conceptually, by an editor or by your own redrafting eye — McPhee urges for the fierce preservation of that unexampled insignia:

Never stop battling for the survival of your own unique stamp.

And yet that stamp, he reminds us, is carved by the blade of existing excellence. Echoing Mary Oliver’s charming insistence that “the perils of not imitating are greater than the perils of imitating” and affirming Oliver Sacks’s insight into the progression from imitation to originality, McPhee cites what he told his own daughter when she lamented that her style either feels “overwhelmingly self-conscious and strained” or mimics whatever she is reading at the moment:

The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered — wherever and whenever — and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own. Rapidly, the components of imitation fade. What remains is a new element in your own voice, which is not in any way an imitation. Your manner as a writer takes form in this way, a fragment at a time. A style that lacks strain and self-consciousness is what you seem to aspire to, or you wouldn’t be bringing the matter up. Therefore, your goal is in the right place. So practice taking shots at it. A relaxed, unself-conscious style is not something that one person is born with and another not. Writers do not spring full-blown from the ear of Zeus.”

Or, as Auden observed in one of his singular strokes of wry perspicacity, “some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.”

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Complement this fragment of McPhee’s altogether essential Draft No. 4 with Steinbeck’s astonishing use of the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt, then revisit James Baldwin’s advice on writing and a dose from Hemingway, T.S. Eliot’s wonderful letter of wisdom and encouragement to an adolescent girl aspiring to be a writer, musician Ben Folds on how to find your artistic voice, and Whitman on how to keep criticism from sinking your creative confidence.

BP

John Quincy Adams on Efficiency vs. Effectiveness, the Proper Aim of Ambition, and His Daily Routine

“The spark from Heaven is given to few — It is not to be obtained by intreaty or by toil.”

John Quincy Adams on Efficiency vs. Effectiveness, the Proper Aim of Ambition, and His Daily Routine

“Those who work much do not work hard,” Henry David Thoreau observed in his prescient meditation on the myth of productivity and the measure of meaningful labor a century before the dawn of the cult of workaholism, which continues to bedevil us with ever-accelerating virulence to this day.

A generation earlier, John Quincy Adams (July 11, 1767–February 23, 1848) — another man of introspective genius and uncommon wisdom — dug at the heart of modernity’s foundational disconnect between efficiency and effectiveness: our tendency to pour tremendous energy into doing things, with little reflection on whether those are the right things to do in the first place.

His journals, now published as John Quincy Adams: Diaries 1779–1821 (public library), offer an exceedingly insightful record of one extraordinary man’s reflections on his own nature, haloed with luminous wisdom on the universals of human nature. Throughout them, the sixth President of the United States examines the paradox of how even the most industrious self-exertion can fail to attain a worthwhile result and why unfocused ambition is a guarantee of frustration rather than fulfillment.

John Quincy Adams. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, 1796.

In the spring of 1819, six years before he won the Presidency, 52-year-old Adams anticipates Kierkegaard’s proclamation that “of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous [is] to be busy,” and laments the absurdity of ineffectual busyness that animates his days in office as Secretary of State:

Every day starts new game to me, upon the field of my duties; but the hurry of the hour leaves me no time for the pursuit of it, and at the close of my Career I shall merely have gone helter skelter through the current business of the Office, and leave no permanent trace of my ever having been in it behind.

Years earlier, in observing his own habits of mind in the course of his voracious self-education, Adams had become aware of the meager correlation between effort exerted and results obtained when a clarity of purpose is lacking — even the mightiest discipline, after all, is wasted without a clear direction. In a diary entry penned on the final day of 1804 — a year he considered distinguished by “its barrenness of Events” — the thirty-seven-year-old Adams laments his tendency to lose himself in rabbit holes of what may be interesting but is not relevant to his larger aims:

My studies were assiduous and seldom interrupted. I meant to give them such a direction, as should be useful in its tendency; yet on looking back, and comparing the time consumed with the knowledge acquired, I have no occasion to take pride in the result of my application — I have been a severe Student, all the days of my life — But an immense proportion of the time I have dedicated to the search of knowledge, has been wasted upon subjects which can never be profitable to myself or useful to others — Another source of useless toil, is the want of a method properly comprehensive and minute, in the pursuit of my enquiries — This method has been to me a desideratum for many years; I have found none in books; nor have I been able to contrive one for myself. From these two causes, I have derived so little use from my labours, that it has often brought me to the borders of discouragement, and I have been attempted to abandon my books altogether — This however is impossible — for the habit has so long been fixed in me, as to have become a passion, and when once severed from my books, I find little or nothing in life, to fill the vacancy of time — I must therefore continue to plod, and to lose my labour; contenting myself with the consolation, that even this drudgery of Science, contributes to Virtue, though it lead not to wealth or honour.

“Down the Rabbit Hole.” Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Several years later, finding himself so absorbed in learning logarithmic calculation that a whole day had fled, he chastises himself for an unfocused curiosity that flits from subject to subject, unbridled by poor time-management, lacking focused commitment to deeper study of any one discipline:

I find it easy to engage my attention in scientific pursuits of almost any kind, but difficult to guard against two abuses — the one of being insensibly drawn from one to another, as I now have from Chronology to Astronomy and from Astronomy to Logarithms — the other of misapplying time, which is essential to the business of life; public and private.

And yet life affords Adams a counterpoint to this harsh self-criticism — it is by such kaleidoscopic curiosity that we arrive at what we don’t know we didn’t know and gradually broaden the shorelines of our knowledge amid the ocean of our ignorance. The following November, finding himself confined indoors by inclement weather and short days, his eyes wearied by long hours of reading by candlelight, Adams writes in his diary:

I this day discovered a new particular of my own ignorance of things which I ought to have known these thirty years — One clear morning about a fortnight since I remarked from my bed-chamber windows a certain group of stars forming a Constellation which I had not before observed and of which I knew not the name — I marked down their positions on a slip of paper with a view to remember them hereafter and to ascertain what they were — This day on looking into the Abridgment of La Lande’s Astronomy, one of the first figures that struck my eye in the plates was that identical Constellation — It was Orion — That I should have lived nearly fifty years without knowing him, shews too clearly what sort of an observer I have been… I am ashamed at my age to be thus to seek for the very first Elements of practical Astronomy.

Illustration from Bright Sky, Starry City, a children’s book celebrating citizen astronomy

Two weeks later, Adams records his daily routine and its higher purpose:

I rise on the average about 6 O’Clock, in the morning, and retire to bed between ten and eleven at Night — The interval is filled as it has been nearly two years, more particularly, as since I placed Charles at school — The four or five hours that I previously devoted to him I now employ in reading books of Science — These studies I now pursue, not only as the most delightful of occupations to myself, but with a special reference to the improvement and education of my children.

Alluding to the dying words of the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe — “Let me not seem to have lived in vain,” memorably immortalized by Adrienne Rich a century and a half later in her sublime ode to women in astronomy — Adams adds the closest thing to a personal mission statement he would ever commit to words:

I feel the sentiment with which Tycho Brahe died, perhaps as strongly as he did — His “ne frustra vixisse videar” was a noble feeling, and in him had produced its fruits — He had not lived in vain — He was a benefactor to his species — But the desire is not sufficient — The spark from Heaven is given to few — It is not to be obtained by intreaty or by toil — To be profitable to my Children, seems to me within the compass of my powers — To that let me bound my wishes, and my prayers — And may that be granted to them!

John Quincy Adams: Diaries 1779–1821 is a magnificent read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with Walt Whitman’s advice on living a rewarding life and Bruce Lee’s previously unpublished letters to himself about the measure of success, then revisit education reformer Abraham Flexner on the usefulness of useless knowledge and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck on using the diary as a tool of discipline.

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