John Steinbeck and Slow Writing

Clock, family photo

June 17, 1938

“Hope my nerves aren’t weak because they have a long haul ahead….Begin the detailed description of the family I am to live with for four months. Must take time in the description, detail, detail, looks, clothes, gestures. Ma very important. Uncle John important. Pa very. In fact all of them are important. Got to take it slowly. I don’t care how long it is. We have to know these people. Know their looks and nature. Must.”  Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938 – 1941, John Steinbeck

The Art of Slow Writing book coverI’ve just finished reading Louise DeSalvo’s wonderful The Art of Slow Writing.  I like slow cooking, slow cities, slow flowers, and slow living, so of course I had to see what slow writing is all about.

In her book, Louise looks closely at every stage of the writing process and what it takes to achieve our best work.

Slow down, she recommends. Good writing cannot be rushed.

Slow writing is not a new trend: the best writers have always been slow writers.

Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jo Ann Beard, Virginia Woolf, Michael Chabon, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ian McEwan – DeSalvo synthesizes the wisdom of these and many other writers who have spoken frankly about what it takes to go deep into our creative process to achieve stellar writing.

Louise shows us her writing process, too (she has published several memoirs and other books), and shares anecdotes about getting stuck and how she eventually found a path forward.

Working Days book coverFor those of us writing a memoir or other book-length work, De Salvo recommends studying Steinbeck’s two published writing journals: Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath and Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. She encourages us to keep our own writing journals, too, for long projects.

I’ve begun skimming Working Days. Notice in the opening quote above that John Steinbeck reminds himself to take it slowly, and give each character his or her due.

It’s surprising to see how lost Steinbeck sometimes felt and how he used his writing journal to keep himself going. Here are more excerpts:

September 7, 1938

“I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too. I’ve wanted so badly for it to be good….if only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. I’ll be dead in a very short time too. [Steinbeck would live another 30 years.] So the hell with it….I must go on. I can’t stop…..How did I ever get started on this writing business anyway? To work.”

January 29, 1941

There are so many things to go into this book. An astonishing number of things. But I’ll get them all in if I just relax and get them in day by day and only worry about the 2000 words of each day’s work. That’s the only way to do it, I have found. But damn it, I have to learn it over again every time.

January 30, 1941

My head is a grey cloud in which colors drift about and images half-form. I’m bludgeoned and feel beaten by many little things. And I can’t figure answers to them. Maybe some people think clearly all the time and make nice decisions. I don’t know. But I feel very lost and lonely. 

The Grapes of Wrath book coverThe Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, and contributed to Steinbeck’s winning the Nobel Prize in 1962.

It has stirred up a great deal of controversy, too. According to Robert Demott, editor of Working Days, The Grapes of Wrath has been “banned repeatedly by school boards and libraries, and denounced by right-wing ministers, corporate farmers, and politicians as immoral, degrading, and untruthful.”

A Free Roundtable with Louise DeSalvo

If you’re interested in finding out more about stages of the writing process and how to begin and successfully complete a book-length work, consider registering for the National Association of Memoir Writers free Roundtable (teleconference) with Louise DeSalvo on Thursday, March 5 at 7 pm EST, 4 pm PST. I’ll be in the audience.

Winter reading

Stack of books

 

I’ve been out of town. A stack of books from the library and online were waiting when I got home.

The Steinbeck work journals for East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath are recommended by Louise De Salvo in The Art of Slow Writing as essential if you’re writing a book-length work and want to learn about process.

Deep snow in backyardThe Age of Miracles is this year’s selection for “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book.” We love to read through the deep winters in our part of the world, and this novel of catastrophe and survival will be on many a nightstand here. Why not try it along with us – I’ll be writing about this debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker soon.

The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland, a memoir, and Wolf Winter, a novel. I want to know more about my Scandinavian roots; biography, memoir, and fiction are a great way to explore ancestry and heritage.

Wendell Berry’s Our Only World (ten essays), because Berry is one of our greatest prophets, writing about the clash between humanity and nature and how we must do better. He’s been called a modern-day Emerson or Thoreau.

Backpacking with the Saints, a travel narrative and spiritual memoir. Belden C. Lane’s take on Celtic, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi Muslim writings as he treks the Ozarks and the American Southwest. The book jacket compares him to other lovers of the backcountry, including John Muir and Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir, Wild, was just released as a movie.

Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed, is an overdue Christmas gift for my photographer son. This newly published series of interviews with the filmmaker is so popular it’s been out of stock. I hope he finds it worth the wait.

No one writes about creating art with as much love and eloquence as Vincent Van Gogh.

More about these in upcoming posts at Books Can Save a Life.

 

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