Writing with Steinbeck

Sunday Letter | #306

A sleeping pup.
Sometimes it snows in May -- North La Salle, Detroit, MI

After last week’s letter I went ahead and finished a taped-together-multi-page Heller map for my own manuscript. If nothing else, the act of making the map has helped me better memorize the story, and made clear both what’s important and what’s desperately missing. This along with the additional questions my editor’s been emailing me, and the questions that Julia’s been asking when I tell her over meals about the knots I’m trying to untangle, and I feel myself inching closer to answers – and truly grateful to be so well-supported in my endeavor.

Support comes, too, in other forms. I’ve been reading John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, kept while he wrote the first draft of East of Eden, and fashioned as letters to his friend and editor Pascal Covici. Steinbeck wrote the entries in a 10 3/4” x 14” journal that Covici had given him; he’d write the day’s “letter” on the left-hand page and the text of East of Eden on the right. It was a way of warming up and setting his intentions for the session, and – although this isn’t explicitly stated I imagine it to be so – leaving breadcrumbs for himself for the following day about where he’d left off.

I’ve been reading one entry from the journal each morning, and while I’m only ten days in, what strikes me already is how familiar Steinbeck’s daily struggles are, from being busy with home renovations:

As I said above, we moved into the little house on 72nd St. We have been painting and carrying and arranging for over a week. But there has to come a day when one says – “Now that is over.” I can do many small things after 3:30 but the first part of the day must now be for the book.

To his futzing with writing tools:

My choice of pencils lies now 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 dozens of them for my pencil tray. And this is all I am going to do on this my first day of work.

There are the romantic thoughts, too – the buoyant daydreaming that comes after his first day of significant work on the manuscript:

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. Oh! I am so happy – so very happy.

That bliss! Reading Steinbeck’s letters, even sixty years after they were written, makes me feel like I’m working alongside another struggling writer – and a very good one at that. I’ve never gone on a non-self-organized writing retreat, nor have I ever joined a formal co-working space, but I imagine that this camaraderie is one of the main draws. It perfumes the air.

And I can’t end without acknowledging the meta-ness of me, writing to you, about Steinbeck here – in my own journal of a novel. I hope you feel a bit of that same camaraderie when you read these Sunday letters. Happy Mother’s Day!