Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘John Steinbeck’

15 DECEMBER, 2014

How to Change Your Mind and Murder Your Darlings: John Steinbeck on Creative Integrity and the Humanistic Duty of the Writer

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“If I can’t do better I have slipped badly… I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success.”

The fact that we humans have such a notoriously hard time changing our minds undoubtedly has to do with the notion that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” which belies the great robbery of the human experience — by calling ourselves beings, we deny our ever-unfolding becomings. Only in childhood are we afforded the luxury of inhabiting our becoming, but once forced to figure out who we want to be in life, most of us are so anxious about planting that stake of being that we bury the alive, active process of our becoming. In our rush to arrive at who we want to be, we flee from the ceaseless mystery of our becoming.

To show up wholeheartedly for our becoming requires doing one of the hardest things in life — allow the possibility of being wrong and incur the anguish of admitting that error. It requires that we grieve every earlier version of ourselves and endure the implicit accusation that if the way we do a certain thing now is better than before, then the way we did it before is not only worse but possibly — and this is invariably crushing — even wrong. The uncomfortable luxury of changing our mind is thus central to the courage of facing our becoming with our whole being.

This constant tussle could be especially difficult for artists, who imbue their creative work with an enormous amount of their being at the point of creation but must also include it in the ongoing record of their becoming. Hardly any figure in creative history has faced that anguishing moment of changing one’s mind for the sake of creative integrity, and faced it publicly, with more courage than John Steinbeck.

In September of 1936 — more than a quarter century before he was awarded the Nobel Prize — 34-year old Steinbeck witnessed a gruesome clash between the migrant workers and growers in a lettuce strike in California. “There are riots in Salinas and killings in the streets of that dear little town where I was born,” he despaired in a letter to his friend George Albee. Deeply invested in the fate of the migrant workers — who were also suffering from massive floods, had no help from the government, and lived in conditions over which Steinbeck repeatedly expressed compassionate outrage in his letters — he began working on a manuscript titled L’Affaire Lettuceberg. But over the two years that followed, it unraveled into an angry and rather bitter satire of Salinas leadership. Steinbeck was very much of the conviction that, as E.B. White eloquently put it many years later, a writer should “lift people up, not lower them down.” And this text — a work of tearing down rather than building up — seemed to move young Steinbeck not closer but further away from the great champion of the human spirit he would one day become.

As soon as he finished the manuscript in mid-May of 1938, Steinbeck did something few people and perhaps even fewer artists are able to do: He murdered his darlings in a courageous letter to his editor, found in the altogether revelatory Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library | IndieBound). The missive is a masterwork of looking one’s becoming in the eye and somersaulting one’s entire being into a strenuous and seemingly backbreaking change of course for the sake of creative and spiritual integrity.

Steinbeck writes:

This is going to be a hard letter to write … this book is finished and it is a bad book and I must get rid of it. It can’t be printed. It is bad because it isn’t honest. Oh! these incidents all happened but — I’m not telling as much of the truth about them as I know. In satire you have to restrict the picture and I just can’t do satire…. I know, you could sell possibly 30,000 copies. I know that a great many people would think they liked the book. I myself have built up a hole-proof argument on how and why I liked it. I can’t beat the argument but I don’t like the book… Not once in the writing of it have I felt the curious warm pleasure that comes when work is going well. My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other and then I deliberately write this book the aim of which is to cause hatred through partial understanding. My father would have called it a smart-alec book. It was full of tricks to make people ridiculous. If I can’t do better I have slipped badly.

He attributes the misfire to a kind of creative complacency — another admission too anguishing for most of us to make — which made him forget that writing, as David Foster Wallace put it, is an art in which the horizon for self-improvement is infinite; forget the constant becoming that is any craft:

I had got smart and cocky you see. I had forgotten that I hadn’t learned to write books, that I will never learn to write them. A book must be a life that lives all of itself and this one doesn’t do that.

Steinbeck — who had just gotten significant critical acclaim for his warmup essays on the migrant workers’ plight, published in The Nation — is also exquisitely aware of how blinding success can become to that essential incompleteness of an artist’s creative journey:

I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success….

I think this book will be a good lesson for me. I think I got to believing critics — I thought I could write easily and that anything I touched would be good simply because I did it. Well any such idea conscious or unconscious is exploded for some time to come. I’m in little danger now of believing my own publicity….

Again I’m sorry. But I’m not ready to be a hack yet. Maybe later.

First-edition cover for 'The Grapes of Wrath,' published on April 14, 1939

Less than two weeks later, Steinbeck was already hard at work on The Grapes of Wrath — the iconic epic of the Great Depression that shines a light on the same uncomfortable and often gruesome subjects of class struggle, power, and oppression, but does so in a way that ennobles the characters, chooses dignity over depravity, and critiques a hopeless situation while granting hope. He gave himself a hundred days to finish the novel and recorded his creative process and personal journey in Working Days, which is in many ways as significant and rewarding as the novel it chronicles. The Grapes of Wrath earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize a year after its publication, became a cornerstone of his Nobel Prize two decades later, and endures as one of the most important works of social justice ever published in the English language.

Complement it with Steinbeck’s unforgettable letter of advice to his teenage son on falling in love.

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27 FEBRUARY, 2014

John Steinbeck on the Creative Spirit and the Meaning of Life

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“The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.”

A decade before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) wrote East of Eden (public library), which was eventually adapted into the 1955 film of the same title starring James Dean and which Steinbeck originally addressed to his two young sons. (The elder one, Thom, later became the recipient of Steinbeck’s magnificent letter of advice on falling in love.)

The thirteenth chapter of the novel features some of the most beautiful, poignant, and timelessly transcendent prose ever written — a gorgeous meditation on the meaning of life and the essence of the creative spirit:

Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then — the glory — so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.

Writing in 1952, and writing for his two young sons, Steinbeck peers into the future, perhaps our present, with a concerned and prescient eye:

There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know. Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good. It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man. A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform. When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger. There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused.

He extends a poignant reminder of what anchors us to life and what makes that life worth living:

At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?

Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.

And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on the preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for this is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.

Complement East of Eden with Steinbeck’s six tips on writing, a fine addition to the collected wisdom of great writers.

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03 MAY, 2013

Famous Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers

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Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Didion, Sontag, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Orwell, and other literary icons.

By popular demand, I’ve put together a periodically updated reading list of all the famous advice on writing presented here over the years, featuring words of wisdom from such masters of the craft as Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, Stephen King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan Orlean, Ernest Hemingway, Zadie Smith, and more.

Please enjoy. (If you’re unable to scroll within the embed below, open the full reading list in a new window.)

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.