I have just begun reading John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, a compilation of Steinbeck’s letters to his editor and friend, to whom he addressed a journal entry every day before writing his manuscript pages for his novel.
East of Eden is one of the first books I read years ago that grabbed me and twisted my thinking around. I thought I was reading one story and then halfway through everything shifted and I was reading another much more unexpected one. I will never forget that visceral sensation of being yanked into the world of the Trasks and the Hamiltons. That was the moment I fell in love with literature.
I’ve reread East of Eden in the past years, and now see that it is an imperfect book in many way, heavy on message and clumsy in some of its pacing. And yet, I still love it because it was the first book to demand my attention and make me think, “Oh, wow. This is so different (and better) than I initially thought.”
Now that I’ve written a memoir and have turned that memoir into a novel, I have some sense of how difficult novel-writing is. I am now in the early stages of a second novel and reading Steinbeck’s thoughts as he is working on East of Eden is a gift beyond measure. It is so helpful to read the unguarded words of a writer who is seeking to write the best book of his life.
Two of my favorite quotes so far are:
In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through – not very much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible. There is another kind who pulls in his horizons, drops his mind as one lowers rifle sights. And giving up the impossible he gives up writing. Whether fortunate or unfortunate, this has not happened to me. The same blind effort, the straining and puffing go on in me. And always I hope that a little trickles through. This urge dies hard.
I want to write this one as though it were my last book. Maybe I believe that every book should be written that way. I think I mean that. It is the ideal. And I have done just the opposite. I have written each book as an exercise, as practice for the one to come. And this is the one to come. There is nothing beyond this book – nothing follows it.
It must be noted that those “practice books” included Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and The Pearl, to name a few. Also, East of Eden was not Steinbeck’s last book, though he considered it his greatest one.
I will continue to read Journal of a Novel and to “strain and puff” as I work on my writing. I like the idea of approaching this new book as if it were my last. That makes sense to me – no holding back. Now comes the effort and the hope that maybe just a little of what I’m trying to do will “trickle through.”
I best get started.