Write Your Way into Writing

National Stenbeck Center - Guenette photo

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

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)

Here’s a little story about the art of writing your way into the work of being a writer.

In 2010, Bruce and I took a three-week, driving trip around Northern California. A highlight of the trip was our visit to the city of Salinas, the stomping ground of John Steinbeck. I’ve always been a huge fan of Steinbeck’s writing – right, who hasn’t? We enjoyed several hours at the National Steinbeck Center gaining insight into the personality of the author who wrote such famous works as, Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath.

Steinbeck - A Life in Letters coverLater, 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. Take note close friends and family – keep those personal papers under lock and key! People come alive in the letters they write. These Steinbeck letters are special because the editors decided the main criteria for inclusion should be that the letter in question was interesting.

I learned some valuable things about Steinbeck’s approach to writing while reading his letters. He started each writing day with personal correspondence and he sent out an average of five to six letters per day. It is within this letter writing that he explored who he was as 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.

National Steinbeck Center 2 - Guenette photo

In the early days of Steinbeck’s career he struggled financially and he handwrote most of his manuscripts on the blank back pages of used accounting ledgers he obtained from his father. He kept up the habit even when he could afford to drop it. He used a new accounting journal for each work. He handwrote the first draft of the novel on one side of the page and wrote his reflections and notes, as he went, on the other. 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 imagine how it felt knowing that Steinbeck wrote a book thinking of you and then gave you the original, hand-written copy. Wow!

National Steinbeck Center 2 - Bruce Witzel photo

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 used to call spinning my wheels is now writing my way into writing.

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 learn that we have something of value to share through the process of writing it down. We write our way into being writers.

National Steinbeck Center 4 - Guenette photo

Personal disclaimer – this is one of the first posts I wrote for my blog. Busy with summer fun, I had hoped to simply reblog it. No such luck. I know I have honed my skills because writing done two years ago definitely needed a touch up or two or three for presentation today.

22 comments on “Write Your Way into Writing

  1. smilecalm says:

    inspiring, Francis!
    i wonder if writing 5 or 6
    personal emails per day
    will transform me
    into a Steinbeck?

  2. dex says:

    “Write – do it first – do it every day – just do it.”

    Yes. I love this. Wonderful post!

    • Now if only summer company and a garden brimming over with produce and the need to water didn’t keep getting in the way – oh well – maybe I should have added something along the lines of take time to actually live, as well.

  3. clareweiner says:

    I like this … I even sometimes do it (though not in multiples unless you count several friendly e-mails). However, I ask a question here which I haven’t yet found an answer to: why do so many people ‘want to write’ yet have nothing they passionately want to say? To communicate? SO they pen-chew and agonise and say how they envy writers … Writing is like Steinbeck’s letter-writing shows, basically, primarily, communication with others. You first have something to say, huh? Hopefully this question isn’t so off-topic that it won’t generate comments/answers?

    • Nicki Chen says:

      I think we don’t always know what we want to say (even passionately want to say) until we sit down to write it. When I started my blog, I decided that I would post once a week. Making that commitment meant that I had to come up with something to write about every single week. I admit that not every post I’ve written during the past year is about a passionately held view, but I’ve been surprised at some of the things my fingers typed. I’m also aware that I haven’t had the courage to write about some of the things I feel passionately about. Maybe someday.

      • Hi Nicki – oh so true on the not knowing what needs to be written until we are in the process of writing it. That is my experience, too. The books evolve in the writing. I can think and think and plan and plan but everything is up for grabs once I start writing.

    • Good question, Clare. Probably the same reason some people dominate all conversations in face-to-face encounters when they don’t have much to say – except they don’t get that part. I only started to write because the burning desire to tell the story that was in me became to intense to ignore. Thus, in fiction writing, I have never experienced anything like writer’s block. Crossing my fingers that I am not bringing bad luck by saying that.

  4. jane tims says:

    I like ‘Travels with Charlie’ the best of his work. I looked on line but couldn’t find who he wrote it for. Interesting post! Jane

    • I haven’t read, Travels with Charlie but in the National Steinbeck Center there is this quote where Steinbeck says he travelled through State after State and no one recognized him and that was after having won a Pulitzer Prize! Maybe it was just the novels that were written for one person in particular? I’m not sure about that.

  5. Nicki Chen says:

    I love that first quote. Maybe that is why we tell stories: to be less lonesome, to share our thoughts with others. Since I started blogging almost a year ago, I’ve enjoyed sharing my thoughts with the people who visit my blog and also hearing and commenting on what other bloggers think.

    • clareweiner says:

      Yes, interaction is good! Story also makes sense of our world.

    • If a story is told in the forest and no one hears, is it still a story? Stories need to be told. Writers tell the stories but the act of interpretation rests with the reader. No reader, no interpretation, no story. We sent these stories out into the world and readers make meaning of them. And if we’re really lucky, they come back and tell us what they think.

  6. diannegray says:

    I would love to have read Steinbeck’s blog (too bad there were none back then). Could you imagine how good it would have been! 😀

    • Oh, Dianne, what a great idea. Blogs by famous literary figures. I’d love to channel a bit of Hemingway and Poe now and then into my blog. Wouldn’t that be fun. All my high-spirits tempered by a wee bit of darkness and a dollop of despair. LOL.

  7. Gwen Stephens says:

    I like this idea, Fran, of writing your way into writing every day. Especially since I’ve been in a bit of a funk lately. Having reached my Camp NaNoWriMo goal of 30k words for July, I haven’t been too motivated since. Perhaps this is a tactic I will employ going forward. I also like that this was an early post. I’m sure it was an adventure to go back, reread, and spiff it up to your current standard.

    • Congratulations, Gwen, on reaching your Camp NaNoWriMo goals. The rest period after a major word goal is as important as reaching that goal. Words need time to percolate. You’re right on the adventure of going back – I am always a bit shocked to realize how much earlier writing needs work, though.

  8. Roy McCarthy says:

    Sadly I’ve read no Steinbeck – I really ought to.

  9. Recently I had a good friend ask why I journal every day. I told her if I didn’t get the thoughts out of my head every morning, I would never be able to write. Her next question was, “Aren’t you afraid someone will read it after you die?” 🙂

    • That is funny – with any luck fear ends at death. Better to worry if someone would read it while one was still alive. Whatever it takes to get the pump primed – that is what we must do.

  10. What an incredible recognition of his readership to write his next book with one of them in mind. I love that!

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