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‘Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish’: John Steinbeck’s advice on writing
06.11.2014
12:42 pm

Topics:
Books
Literature

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Writing
John Steinbeck
title

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Responding to a letter from Robert Wallsten, who was “experiencing a kind of stage fright about actually starting to write a biographical work,” John Steinbeck, author of those longtime staples of high school syllabi, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, gave the following advice.
 

Villa Panorama
Capri
February 13-14, 1962

Dear Robert:

Your bedridden letter came a couple of days ago and the parts about your book, I think, need an answer…

...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 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 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 the reason it gave trouble is it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of the 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.

Well, actually that’s about all.

I know that no two people have the same methods. However, these mostly work for me…

love to all there

John

 
1962 was a good year for Steinbeck, as he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. At his acceptance speech, given at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1962, Steinbeck said:
 

Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches—nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tinhorn mendicants of low calorie despair. Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed.

 
Steinbeck’s speech can be viewed below.
 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher

 

 

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