Write your way into writing: Steinbeck did it – so can you!

We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome.

Taken at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California

Think about what Steinbeck’s mother thought of him when you’re worried what your own mother thinks about your hopes and dreams

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 the way I feel it.

You’re not as alone as you thought.”

(John Steinbeck)

Today I want to tell a story about how to write your way into the work of writing. In 2010 my husband and I took a three week driving trip around Northern California. One of the highlights of the trip was the city of Salinas and a visit to the National Steinbeck Center. I’ve always been a huge fan of Steinbeck’s writing so I really enjoyed gaining insight into the person of John Steinbeck that permeates all of his work.

Later, in the gift shop, I bought a book entitled Steinbeck: A Life in Letters edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten (1975). This book is a compilation of personal letters written by Steinbeck over a forty-five year period of his life – the first letter when he was barely twenty-one and the last written just a few months before his death at age sixty-six. I’ve always found other peoples’ personal correspondence fascinating reading (note to close friends and family – keep those personal papers under lock and key when I’m around!)  In letters it seems that people really come alive. I think it’s because letters are written in the moments of life from a particular person to a particular person. These letters are even more special because the editors decided the main criteria for inclusion should be that the letter in question was interesting.

From this book I learned some valuable things about Steinbeck’s approach to writing. He started each writing day with personal correspondence and he sent out an average of five to six letters every day. It is within this letter writing that he explored who he was as a person and a writer, he laid bare his pride and confidence in equal doses with his insecurities and his failures. His letters vibrate with life as lived in the moment and reflected on within moments of living.

In the early days of Steinbeck’s career he struggled financially and he handwrote most of his early manuscripts on the blank back pages of used accounting ledgers he obtained from his father. He kept up this habit even when he could afford to drop it. He would use a new accounting journal for each work and he would handwrite the first draft of the actual novel on one side of the page and write his reflections and notes as he went on the other side. He always wrote a novel with one particular reader in mind and often gifted the original draft, written in the accounting journal, to that person when the book was published. Can you even imagine what that would have been like – to know that Steinbeck wrote a book thinking of just you as the reader and then gave you the original, hand-written copy. Wow!

Steinbeck wrote his way into writing every day. He kept an ongoing, reflective dialogue right alongside of his fiction writing and he wrote always for a specific person. I think of John Steinbeck now every time I “warm-up” in front of the computer screen – what I use to call spinning my wheels is now writing my way into writing. Just write – do it first – do it every day – just do it. Let your fingers fly across the keys creating words. Let your thoughts be formed as you write. We come to know we have something to say through the process of writing it down. As the words flow from our thoughts onto the page we realize what it is we need to say. We write our way into being writers.

7 comments on “Write your way into writing: Steinbeck did it – so can you!

  1. Louise Butcher says:

    The idea of becoming a writer by writing makes a lot of sense. It is as much a skill as art, music, sculpture or dance. Very often the masters inspire us to try our hand at something special. Sometimes they even show us how we might succeed (as Steinbeck has done for you). I appreciate your story about his approach to writing. I’d like to be a writer myself but clearly, desire is not enough. Well done you, Fran, for taking the next step and for being willing to do the real work – practice, practice, practice. Congratulations, you are already well on your way.

    • Though I feel like the old cranky looking bear who comes along every few days to chew on weeds from under the solar panel when it comes to the practice and work aspects – edits and changes and endless revisions – we all need our 10,000 hours to become proficient at any anything (Malcolm Gladwell in his great book, Outliers). Yes – desire and the creative urge are alas not enough – but that is the exciting place to start for sure.

  2. Reblogged this on disappearinginplainsight and commented:

    In honour of John Steinbeck’s birthday, I’m reblogging a post I did way back in June of 2012 – my first month of blogging. How times have changed but Steinbeck’s words on warming up to writing are as relevant to me today as they were back in 2012.

  3. Thanks, Fran. So very interesting about Mr. Steinbeck! Loved how he continued using the blank ledgers longafter there was no need for him to do so. Says much about the man!

    • I think that was one of my favourite discoveries when reading his letters. Just goes to prove that once we writers get into a writing habit – we stick with it. And wouldn’t it have been something to be the ‘one person’ he had in mind as he wrote, the person who received that hand-written copy? If you haven’t, do visit the Steinbeck museum in Salinas. Well worth the trip.

  4. Fascinating stories of Steinbeck, a favorite of mine. Nice post!

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