East of Eden

When you need a friend, try Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel

Seventy-five years ago, as the world was rising out of the Great Depression right into a new world war, John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath.  That novel and others concerned with the big issues of the century - and this century, too, given the gap that not only still exists but has possibly widened between rich and poor - helped to form the social conscience I was developing in my teens. It was a big book for me in that sense, not the first of Steinbeck's I'd read. I went on to love others, the characters and setting of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday being favourites.

Years later, when I was working on my first book of short stories (Suburbs of the Arctic Circle), a friend recommended another Steinbeck book, but non-fiction this time; the diary Steinbeck addressed to his editor, a passage for each day, which was later published, virtually unedited, as Journal of a Novel: the East of Eden Letters.
It's a great book for a working writer to dip into midstream, especially during not a block exactly, but a stall. Steinbeck's thoughts are so intimate, it feels like you're listening to a friend, maybe an old friend you haven't seen in some time, who is a writer, too. Of course this is because Steinbeck was addressing his thoughts to an actual close friend and confidant, Pascal Covici, someone to whom Steinbeck could confess his worries about his sons, his health, the details of resettling in NY:  "Such excitement a red rug can cause in a house you wouldn't believe. And now it really is time to go to work." His occasional impatience with "the scene" that Covici, an editor at Viking's New York offices, knew well.

My edition of the book has examples of Steinbeck's clear but small handwriting. He wrote the novel on one side of a lined paper notebook, and the journal entries on the other..in PENCIL! Sometimes he got ahead of himself, particularly in the beginning, when his story was just starting to come, and the journal entries filled more pages than the actual story. Though repetitious in parts, as he tells himself (and Covici, and we readers) again and again why he's writing the novel and what he is trying for, it remains a fascinating look into the mind of a writer whose very name has always evoked humanism for me.

Here are some excerpts:
"A good writer always works at the impossible."

""Lord, this is a complicated book. I hope I can keep all the reins in my hands and at the same time make it sounds as though the book were almost accidental."

"I am breaking pencil points today -- overvehemence. This is usually the thing that happens at first, before a connection establishes."

"I drank too much on Saturday night and had a hangover on Sunday, a fine depressed hangover in which nothing seemed any good and I myself seemed the most no good of all."

"..a story has a life of its own. It must be allowed to take its own pace. It can't be pushed too much. If it is, the warp shows through and the story is unnatural and unsafe."

"A chapter should be a perfect cell in the whole book and should almost be able to stand alone."

I could go on and on. Every once in awhile when I'm in one of those stalls that compel me to step back and ask why and if and how, I remember the bookshelf where Journal of Novel lives, and take it out, look over a few pages, and then... it really is time to go to work.