Many years ago, I met John Steinbeck at a party in Sag Harbor, and told him that I had writer’s block. And he said something which I’ve always remembered, and which works. He said, “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.” And at the time I was enamored of Jean Seberg, the actress, and I had to write an article about taking Marianne Moore to a baseball game, and I started it off, “Dear Jean . . . ,” and wrote this piece with some ease, I must say. And to my astonishment that’s the way it appeared in Harper’s Magazine. “Dear Jean . . .” Which surprised her, I think, and me, and very likely Marianne Moore.
At The Paris Review, where I’m the editor, we wanted very much to publish an interview with John Steinbeck on the craft of writing, a series that’s been running in the magazine since 1953. And Mr. Steinbeck wanted to do this interview, but before we got started on it, he died. He did speak of a diary that he kept when he was preparing East of Eden, and had said if we wanted we could take excerpts from this diary which related to the craft of writing. And these are some that were published in The Paris Review:
I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the 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 twentieth 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 the word pangs. . . .
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. . . .
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 the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through, not ever much. A good writer always works at the impossible. Oh, it is a real horse’s ass business. The mountain labors and groans and strains, and the tiniest of rodents comes out. And the great foolishness of all lies in the fact that to do it at all, a writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. . . .
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. . . .
I’ve always tried out my material on my dogs first. You know with Angel he sits there and I get the feeling he understands everything. But with Charley, I always felt he was just waiting to get in a word 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.
After the theater we went to Sardi’s and had dinner and saw many friends. It is so long since we have been out that is was fun, but somewhere I picked up a great sadness. I think it was John O’Hara. That is the only thing I can think of which would have caused it.
In a short time it 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 no one ever can pull it back. It’s like shouting goodbye to someone going off on a bus, and no one can hear because of the roar of the motor.
Steinbeck wrote a letter to Nathaniel Benchley’s son, who wanted to know something about writing. Here’s what he said:
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 with meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. And 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.” 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.
A few days before Steinbeck died, Tom Ginzburg, who was the editor of the Viking Press, which published all of Steinbeck’s work, went to see him. And Steinbeck said to Tom that the one achievement he was proudest of was that his success, his huge success, had made it possible for the Viking Press to publish a lot of first novels by a new generation. Indeed, what a man.