Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

09 MARCH, 2015

Walter Benjamin on Information vs. Wisdom and How the Novel and the News Killed Storytelling


“Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.”

I think often, and with billowing concern, about the role of storytellers in helping us cultivate wisdom in the age of information — a task increasingly challenging and increasingly important as we find ourselves bombarded with bits of disjoined information, devoid of the sensemaking context that only deft storytelling can impart. Listicles commandeer these bits into alleged order, furthering our collective delusion of mistaking information for truth and meaning; there is a reason, after all, why we call such disjointed bits of information “trivia” — the true material of wisdom is meaning, and the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. Although the list may be the origin of culture, truth and meaning are culture’s end goal. A listicle can never order information into truth, much less imbue it with meaning. Only the storyteller can transmute information — be it in the form of “objective” fact or “subjective” experience — into wisdom.

A century before the age of the listicle, German philosopher, cultural theorist, literary critic, and unflinching idealist Walter Benjamin (July 15, 1892–September 26, 1940) explored this dance between information and wisdom with great insight and prescience in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (public library) — a compendium of Benjamin’s ideas on language, literature, and life, originally published in 1968 and edited by the brilliant Hannah Arendt. In the introduction, Arendt envelops Benjamin’s genius in her own to describe him as “an alchemist practicing the obscure art of transmuting the futile elements of the real into the shining, enduring gold of truth.”

The most dazzling such transmutation takes place in an essay titled “The Storyteller,” in which Benjamin uses the work of 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov as a springboard for a higher-order meditation on the role of storytelling in society, the dangers of its decline, and how it shapes our relationship to truth, both public and private. The picture Benjamin paints begins in darkness but reaches toward the light.

He writes:

Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant… Viewed from a certain distance, the great, simple outlines which define the storyteller stand out in him, or rather, they become visible in him, just as in a rock a human head or an animal’s body may appear to an observer at the proper distance and angle of vision. This distance and this angle of vision are prescribed for us by an experience which we may have almost every day. It teaches us that the art of storytelling is coming to an end. Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.

One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness.

A century ago, Benjamin directs his lament about the commodification of experience at the newspaper — a medium enjoying its commercial heyday, not without timelessly timely criticism — but it applies all the more piercingly to the whole buzzfeedery of today’s online news and entertainment industry:

Every glance at a newspaper demonstrates that it has reached a new low, that our picture, not only of the external world but of the moral world as well, overnight has undergone changes which were never thought possible.


Never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.

Painting by Wendy Mark from '89 Clouds' by Mark Strand. Click image for more.

Long before contemporary psychologists came to advocate for the enormous importance of practical wisdom in human life, Benjamin argues for the value — the practical use, even — of great storytelling in our lives:

An orientation toward practical interests is characteristic of many born storytellers… This points to the nature of every real story. It contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today “having counsel” is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story.

One can hear the echo of Rilke’s passionate exhortation to “live the questions” — a celebration of the uncertainty necessary for the telling of truth — in Benjamin’s case for the sensemaking power of story. To this he adds a point both piercing and prescient, which instantly strips of validity our essential illusion that the most pressing issues of our time are singular and unprecedented in human history:

Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. This, however, is a process that has been going on for a long time. And nothing would be more fatuous than to want to see in it merely a “symptom of decay,” let alone a “modern” symptom. It is, rather, only a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing.

And then he veers into an unexpected direction, at first striking and then strikingly brilliant in its intellectual elegance, as he identifies the true executioner of storytelling:

The earliest symptom of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling is the rise of the novel at the beginning of modern times. What distinguishes the novel from the story … is its essential dependence on the book. The dissemination of the novel became possible only with the invention of printing. What can be handed on orally, the wealth of the epic, is of a different kind from what constitutes the stock in trade of the novel. What differentiates the novel from all other forms of prose literature — the fairy tale, the legend, even the novella — is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it. This distinguishes it from storytelling in particular. The storyteller takes what he tells from experience — his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.

In a remark that calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s scathing view of all things middlebrow, Benjamin adds:

Hardly any other forms of human communication have taken shape more slowly, been lost more slowly. It took the novel, whose beginnings go back to antiquity, hundreds of years before it encountered in the evolving middle class those elements which were favorable to its flowering. With the appearance of these elements, storytelling began quite slowly to recede into the archaic; in many ways, it is true, it took hold of the new material, but it was not really determined by it. On the other hand, we recognize that with the full control of the middle class, which has the press as one of its most important instruments in fully developed capitalism, there emerges a form of communication which, no matter how far back its origin may lie, never before influenced the epic form in a decisive way. But now it does exert such an influence. And it turns out that it confronts storytelling as no less of a stranger than did the novel, but in a more menacing way, and that it also brings about a crisis in the novel.

And then, the essential point:

This new form of communication is information.

Paul Otlet's early-20th-century proto-internet, the Mundaneum, from 'Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age.' Click image for more.

The death of storytelling, Benjamin argues, is both the result and a further cause of this gaping rift between wisdom and information — a concern even more valid and worrisome today, in our story-yelling era driven by the illusion that the latest and the loudest are the most significant and most deserving of our attention. Benjamin writes:

It is no longer intelligence coming from afar, but the information which supplies a handle for what is nearest that gets the readiest hearing. The intelligence that came from afar — whether the spatial kind from foreign countries or the temporal kind of tradition — possessed an authority which gave it validity, even when it was not subject to verification. Information, however, lays claim to prompt verifiability. The prime requirement is that it appear “understandable in itself.” Often it is no more exact than the intelligence of earlier centuries was. But while the latter was inclined to borrow from the miraculous, it is indispensable for information to sound plausible. Because of this it proves incompatible with the spirit of storytelling.

Chiefly responsible for the decline of storytelling, Benjamin argues, is the rise of information. In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s monumental 1964 case against interpretation — for whom Benjamin was an influence; “Re-read … [Walter] Benjamin essays, often!” she wrote in her diary, where she extolled the virtues of rereading — he adds:

Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it… The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.


The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.

But the most perilous byproduct of the cult of information, and the greatest threat to storytelling, is something Benjamin identifies a century ago in such a way that any thinking person instantly recognizes it as triply troublesome today: our allergy to boredom and the resulting lost art of stillness. Boredom, after all, is the crucible of contemplation and creativity — legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips called the capacity for boredom “a developmental achievement for the child” and argued that it is essential for the creative life; philosopher Bertrand Russell saw it as central to the conquest of happiness; in his semantic sparring match, Kierkegaard first renounced it, only to extol its sister virtue of idleness. And yet today, we have lost all capacity for boredom. More than that, we have grown bored with thinking itself — we want to instantly know. We want ready-made information to fill the void of contemplative wisdom.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Benjamin caught the early symptoms of this civilizational malady and peered into its future metastasis with extraordinary prescience and precision. He argues for the importance of boredom in the art of listening between the lines, which is in turn central to storytelling:

There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis. And the more natural the process by which the storyteller forgoes psychological shading, the greater becomes the story’s claim to a place in the memory of the listener, the more completely is it integrated into his own experience, the greater will be his inclination to repeat it to someone else someday, sooner or later. This process of assimilation, which takes place in depth, requires a state of relaxation which is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places — the activities that are intimately associated with boredom — are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears. For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This, then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled. This is how today it is becoming unraveled at all its ends after being woven thousands of years ago in the ambience of the oldest forms of craftsmanship.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice and Mary Oliver’s memorable assertion that “attention without feeling … is only a report,” Benjamin considers this craftsmanship aspect of storytelling:

The storytelling that thrives … is itself an artisan form of communication, as it were. It does not aim to convey the pure essence of the thing, like information or a report. It sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again. Thus traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel.

In yet another stroke of sublime divination, Benjamin quotes legendary French polymath Paul Valéry’s assertion that “modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated” — prescient commentary on our modern lust for listicles, the ultimate form of abbreviation — and writes:

[Man] has succeeded in abbreviating even storytelling… From oral tradition and no longer permits that slow piling one on top of the other of thin, transparent layers which constitutes the most appropriate picture of the way in which the perfect narrative is revealed through the layers of a variety of retellings.

Citing Valéry again — who argued that an artisan’s work gets its “existence and value exclusively from a certain accord of the soul, the eye” — Benjamin returns to the craftsmanship aspect of storytelling with its implicit call for patience, which is even more endangered in our day than it was in his:

Soul, eye, and hand are brought into connection. Interacting with one another, they determine a practice. We are no longer familiar with this practice. The role of the hand in production has become more modest, and the place it filled in storytelling lies waste… That old co-ordination of the soul, the eye, and the hand … is that of the artisan which we encounter wherever the art of storytelling is at home. In fact, one can go on and ask oneself whether the relationship of the storyteller to his material, human life, is not in itself a craftsman’s relationship, whether it is not his very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way.

Illustration from J.R.R. Tolkien's little-known art. Click image for more.

And therein lies the very point that makes Benjamin’s meditation so timely and so unshakably urgent today — this fashioning of experience into something “solid” and “useful” for human life is precisely the transmutation of information into wisdom that we, a century after Benjamin, are increasingly losing and desperately need. Benjamin writes:

Seen in this way, the storyteller joins the ranks of the teachers and sages. He has counsel — not for a few situations, as the proverb does, but for many, like the sage. For it is granted to him to reach back to a whole lifetime (a life, incidentally, that comprises not only his own experience but no little of the experience of others; what the storyteller knows from hearsay is added to his own). His gift is the ability to relate his life; his distinction, to be able to tell his entire life. The storyteller: he is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story. This is the basis of the incomparable aura about the storyteller… The storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself.

The full essay, in its eighteen-page entirety, is well worth reading, as is the rest of Benjamin’s wildly and widely rewarding Illuminations. Complement it with Benjamin’s thirteen commandments of writing and Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

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.

06 MARCH, 2015

Gabriel García Márquez on His Unlikely Beginnings as a Writer


“If you’re going to be a writer you have to be one of the great ones… After all, there are better ways to starve to death.”

Gabriel García Márquez (March 6, 1927–April 17, 2014) is one of the greatest authors of all time, and yet he had an unlikely path to greatness. His life-story is an emboldening antidote to the tyrannical myth that the crib is the crucible of creative genius, that only those who turn their childhood dreams into reality are destined for cultural significance, and that unless you have clarity about your purpose early in childhood, you’re doomed to a life of floundering and mediocrity.

García Márquez had no such precocious clarity. (For that matter, neither did Van Gogh.) Instead, the celebrated author’s life stands as a heartening testament to the fact that a purpose is not something you are born with but something you find and cultivate, something that reveals itself when you let your life speak — even when what your life has to say is not, at first, what you want to hear.

García Márquez grew up wanting to be a musician. “I had dreamed about the good life, going from fair to fair and singing with an accordion and a good voice, which always seemed to me to be the oldest and happiest way to tell a story,” he writes in his magnificent memoir, Living to Tell the Tale (public library), before recounting the unlikely beginnings of his career as a writer:

I did not have the courage and sense of independence of my brother Luis Enrique, who did only what he wanted to do. And who without a doubt would achieve a happiness that is not what one desires for one’s children but is what allows them to survive the immoderate affections, the irrational fears, and the joyful expectations of their parents.

The expectations of his parents were lofty. As a young boy, Gabo had always been an excellent student, a genial and unproblematic child — so much so that his grandmother, who was instrumental in raising him, frequently commended him for being “the perfect kid.” But now he was struggling through his secondary education, unhappy in a school that had a “bad reputation as a laboratory of political perversion.” Dejected, he started hanging out with questionable friends, abusing alcohol, and staying out well into the night — he had veered, as he aptly puts it, toward “the wrong path.”

His parents were understandably perturbed at the sudden change. García Márquez relays a pivotal conversation he had with his mother at the age of eighteen:

“Well, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said after a lethal silence, “because if we tell all this to your father he’ll die a sudden death. Don’t you realize you’re the pride of the family?”

For them it was simple: since there was no possibility I would be the eminent physician my father could not be because he did not have the money, they dreamed I would at least be a professional in something else.

“Well, I won’t be anything at all,” I concluded. “I refuse to let you force me into being what I don’t want to be or what you would like me to be, much less what the government wants me to be.”

These tense conversations recurred over the remainder of the week, until one day his mother, “as if by chance,” suggested something that profoundly surprised him:

“They say that if you put your mind to it you could be a good writer.”

I had never heard anything like it in the family. Since I was a child my inclinations had allowed me to suppose that I would draw, be a musician, sing in church, or even be a Sunday poet. I had discovered in myself a tendency, known to everyone, toward writing that was rather convoluted and ethereal, but this time my reaction was one of surprise.

Although his reply was one of cynical skepticism, in it — since cynicism is simply hope masked with fear — has the kernel of aspiration that would define his life:

“If you’re going to be a writer you have to be one of the great ones, and they don’t make them anymore,” I told my mother. “After all, there are better ways to starve to death.”

But once the veil of youthful cynicism was lifted, García Márquez saw he had no choice but to make himself “one of the great ones.” Four decades later, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”.

Complement Living to Tell the Tale with celebrated writers’ collected wisdom on writing and this Literary Jukebox celebration of García Márquez.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

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.

03 MARCH, 2015

Roald Dahl on How Illness Emboldens Creativity: A Moving Letter to His Bedridden Mentor


“I doubt I would have written a line … unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut.”

My daily rhythms of reading and writing were recently derailed by a temporary but acute illness that stopped, unceremoniously and without apology, the music to which mind and matter are entwined in their intimate tango. For the second time in my adult life — the first being a food poisoning episode — I was made palpably aware of how body and brain conspire in the thing we call being. The extreme physical weakness somehow short-circuited the “associative trails” upon which fruitful thinking is based and my card to the library of my own mind was mercilessly revoked, and yet I was granted access to a whole new terra incognita of the mind, a Wonderland of fragmentary ideas and sidewise gleams at Truth. Then, as recovery airlifted me out of the mental haze, returning to my mere baseline of cognitive function felt nothing short of miraculous — as soon as I resumed reading, everything sparked fireworks of connections and illuminated associative trails in all directions. It was as though the illness had catapulted me to a higher plane of what Oscar Wilde called the “temperament of receptivity.”

This, of course, is not an uncommon experience — both the tendency to treat illness as an abstraction until it befalls the concreteness of our body-minds, and the sense of not merely renewed but elevated mental and creative faculties coming out on the other end of a physically and mentally draining stretch. But no one has articulated this odd tradeoff more masterfully than beloved British children’s book author, novelist, and short story writer Roald Dahl (September 13, 1916–November 23, 1990).

In 1954, Dahl traveled to Jamaica with his friend and mentor Charles E. Marsh — a Texas publisher Dahl had come to see as a father figure and a model for the “geriatric child” the author himself would later become — where Marsh contracted cerebral malaria from a mosquito bite and suffered a series of small strokes that left his speech and mobility severely damaged. When Dahl returned to New York — Marsh was too weak to leave Jamaica — he set out to lift his mentor’s spirits with a magnificent letter of sympathetic solidarity and supportive assurance, found in Donald Sturrock’s altogether absorbing Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (public library).

Dahl, who had barely survived a plane crash thirteen years earlier while working as a wartime fighter pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force, reflects on how his own struggle with debilitating chronic pain provided the mental springboard for his career as a writer:

I just want to tell you this: I am an expert on being very ill and having to lie in bed. You are not. Even after you get up and get well after this, you still will be only an amateur at the game compared with us pros. Like any other business, or any unusual occupation, it’s a hell of a tough one to learn. But you know I’m convinced that it has its compensations — for someone like me it does anyway.

I doubt I would have written a line, or would have had the ability to write a line, unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut. You of course were already a philosopher before you became ill. But I predict that you will emerge a double philosopher, and a super philosopher after all this is over. I emerged a tiny-philosopher, a fractional philosopher from nothing, so it stands to reason that you will advance from straight philosopher to super philosopher.

I mean this. I know that serious illness is a good thing for the mind. It is always worth it afterwards. There’s something of the yogi about it, with all its self-disciplines and horrors. And it’s one of the few experiences that you’d never had up to now. So take my view and be kind of thankful that it came. And if afterwards, it leaves you with an ache, or a pain, or a slight disability, as it does me, it doesn’t matter a damn; at least not to anyone but yourself. And as you’ve taught me so well, that is the only unimportant person — oneself.

Whether or not Dahl’s final remark is a reference to the notion that the individual self is an illusion, which Alan Watts began popularizing around the same time and which some of today’s greatest thinkers also champion, is unclear — but it was certainly a notion in the cultural zeitgeist.

Much more of Dahl’s insight and genius spring to life in Storyteller, which chronicles the life of this beloved eternal child from his adventurous youth to his days as a fighter pilot (during which he dreamt up his gremlins) to the creation of Willy Wonka and beyond. For a lighter treat, complement it with some real recipes from Dahl’s beloved children’s books.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

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.

02 MARCH, 2015

How Steinbeck Used the Diary as a Tool of Discipline, a Hedge Against Self-Doubt, and a Pacemaker for the Heartbeat of Creative Work


“Just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.”

Many celebrated writers have championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but no one has put the diary to more impressive practical use in the creative process than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968). In the spring of 1938, shortly after performing one of the greatest acts of artistic courage — that of changing one’s mind when a creative project is well underway, as Steinbeck did when he abandoned a book he felt wasn’t living up to his humanistic duty — he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life. The public fruit of this labor would become the 1939 masterwork The Grapes of Wrath — a title his politically radical wife, Carol Steinbeck, came up with after reading The Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Howe. The novel earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and was a cornerstone for his Nobel Prize two decades later, but its private fruit is in many ways at least as important and morally instructive.

Alongside the novel, Steinbeck also began keeping a diary, eventually published as Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — a remarkable living record of his creative journey, in which this extraordinary writer tussles with excruciating self-doubt (exactly the kind Virginia Woolf so memorably described) but plows forward anyway, with equal parts gusto and grist, driven by the dogged determination to do his best with the gift he has despite his limitations. His daily journaling becomes a practice both redemptive and transcendent.

Steinbeck had only two requests for the diary — that it wouldn’t be made public in his lifetime, and that it should be made available to his two sons so they could “look behind the myth and hearsay and flattery and slander a disappeared man becomes and to know to some extent what manner of man their father was.” It stands, above all, as a supreme testament to the fact that the sole substance of genius is the daily act of showing up.

Steinbeck captures this perfectly in an entry that applies just as well to any field of creative endeavor:

In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I feel like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.

The journal thus becomes at once a tool of self-discipline (he vowed to write in it every single weekday, and did, declaring in one of the first entries: “Work is the only good thing.”), a pacing mechanism (he gave himself seven months to complete the book, anticipated it would actually take only 100 days, and finished it in under five months, averaging 2,000 words per day, longhand, not including the diary), and a sounding board for much-needed positive self-talk in the face of constant doubt (“I am so lazy and the thing ahead is so very difficult,” he despairs in one entry; but he assures himself in another: “My will is low. I must build my will again. And I can do it.”) Above all, it is a tool of accountability to keep him moving forward despite life’s litany of distractions and responsibilities. “Problems pile up so that this book moves like a Tide Pool snail with a shell and barnacles on its back,” he writes, and yet the essential thing is that despite the problems, despite the barnacles, it does move. He captures this in one of his most poignant entries, shortly before completing the first half of the novel:

Every book seems the struggle of a whole life. And then, when it is done — pouf. Never happened. Best thing is to get the words down every day. And it is time to start now.

A few days later, he spirals into self-doubt again:

My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.

Indeed, upon starting the diary, Steinbeck is clear about its disciplining purpose and its role as a reminder this incremental daily progress, often slow and small, is precisely what produces the greater whole. In one of the first entries in early June, he writes:

This is the longest diary I ever kept. Not a diary of course but an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel. If a day is skipped it will show glaringly on this record and there will be some reason given for the slip.

Steinbeck’s commitment to discipline isn’t mere moral vanity or fetishism of productivity — his is an earnest yearning to create the greatest work of his life, the height of what he as a conscious and creative human being is capable. In one of the early entries, he resolves:

This must be a good book. It simply must. I haven’t any choice. It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted — slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges. And I can do it. I feel very strong to do it.

But per Dani Shapiro’s astute distinction between confidence and courage, this is a statement of the latter, the truer virtue — Steinbeck is well aware of everything that might derail his efforts, vexations both external and internal, and yet he decides to exert himself anyway, to be wholehearted about the endeavor despite a profound lack of confidence. Here is courage, alive and throbbing, from another of the early entries:

All sorts of things might happen in the course of this book but I must not be weak. This must be done. The failure of will even for one day has a devastating effect on the whole, far more important than just the loss of time and wordage. The whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language. And sadly enough, if any of the discipline is gone, all of it suffers.

So single-minded is his sense of purpose that in one entry he declares:

Once this book is done I won’t care how soon I die, because my major work will be over.

And in another:

When I am all done I shall relax but not until then. My life isn’t very long and I must get one good book written before it ends.

Wall clock design by Debbie Millman. Click image for more.

But some days, his resolve barely overpowers his self-doubt:

If only I could do this book properly it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book. But I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. I’ll just have to work from a background of these. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty it is all I can expect of my poor brain — never temper a word to a reader’s prejudice, but bend it like putty for his understanding.

And some, the self-doubt becomes completely overwhelming:

If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.

On others, he is able to recognize the doubt but not buy into it:

For some reason I’m slightly skittish. That does not always mean anything. I’ll just take a running dive at it and set down what happens.

This, in a way, is the journal’s most emboldening quality — it is almost a Buddhist scripture, decades before Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, as Steinbeck faces the ebb and flow of experience. He feels his feelings of doubt fully, lets them run through him, and yet maintains a higher awareness that they are just that: feelings, not Truth.

Still, most striking and yet most strangely assuring of all — especially to those also laboring in the seething cauldron of uncertainty that is creative work — is Steinbeck’s chronic and acute case of Impostor Syndrome. Even though he had reached both critical and financial success with his earlier work, he seems not only mistrustful but even contemptuous of that success, seeing in it a source not of pride but of shame. In an early journal, he writes:

For the moment now the financial burdens have been removed. But it is not permanent. I was not made for success. I find myself now with a growing reputation. In many ways it is a terrible thing… Among other things I feel that I have put something over. That this little success of mine is cheating.

He is extremely harsh on himself, to a point of letting his suspicion of his own success swell into suspicion of his personal valor and the basic goodness of his character:

I must be sure to choose which is love and which sorryness. I’m not a very good person. Sometimes generous and good and kind and other times mean and short.

Like most artists, he repeatedly questions the validity of his art and his qualification for it:

Taylor [Ed. — next-door neighbor] just rakes his yard and putters. But he would probably do a better job of this than I am doing. More ship-shape. I wish I were he sometimes. Just rake the yard and mix a little cement. How did I ever get started on this writing business anyway? To work.

Even as he nears completion of the novel — remember, one that would win a Pulitzer and earn Steinbeck the Nobel Prize — he still mistrusts its merit and his talent:

This book has become a misery to me because of my inadequacy.

Shortly before beginning The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck captures in another journal the fake-it-till-you-make-it nature of self-salvation — of incredulously pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps despite a grave sense of insufficiency, of being a fraud about to be found out — and even anthropomorphizes the journal itself, addressing its pages with the same conflictedness with which he beholds his success:

I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me. I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now. That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me. You pages — ten of you — you are the dribble cup — you are the cloth to wipe up the vomit. Maybe I can get these fears and disgusts on you and then burn you up. Then maybe I won’t be so haunted. Have to pretend it’s that way anyhow.

He is especially mistrustful of public acclaim and the complacency it breeds:

Strange thing honor. The most sapping thing in the world.

Indeed, he measures his success not by income or acclaim but by the day’s work. In an entry from the beginning of the diary, he marvels at the enterprise and lays out its objectives:

Here is the diary of a book and it will be interesting to see how it works out. I have tried to keep diaries before but they don’t work out because of the necessity to be honest. In matters where there is no definite truth, I gravitate toward the opposite. Sometimes where there is a definite truth, I am revolted by its smugness and do the same. In this however, I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day.

Steinbeck is equally unperturbed by the commercial prospects of the finished product — it is the process that he extolls above all else, as a moral necessity:

Don’t know who will publish my book. Don’t know at all. No reason to let it slide though. Must keep at it. Necessary.

That process, for him, is fueled by what Anne Lamott would call the “bird by bird” approach to writing some decades later. The journal then becomes a pacing mechanism. A month into the work, Steinbeck writes:

I wonder whether I will ever finish this book. And of course I’ll finish it. Just work a certain length of time and it will get done poco a poco. Just do the day’s work.

As he nears the finish line, he is even more certain of this incremental reach for greatness:

I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.

In an entry that calls to mind Mary Oliver — “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue,” she wrote — Steinbeck reasons with himself to find a healthier pace and rhythm:

Must slow down and take it easier. Saturday had a feeling of exhaustion near to collapse. I guess I’d been working too hard. It’s not the amount of work but the almost physical drive that goes into it that seems to make the difference. I should take it a little easier or I won’t be finishing. I have just a page or so over 100 typescript pages done out of 600. I have five times as much work left to do as I have done already, so I must conserve strength because I do want to do this novel and finish it this time. Must get no fatal feelings about it.

A few days later, he paces himself again:

Think. Think tonight and tomorrow work harder but get sleep tonight. Need sleep.

Illustration by Judith Clay from 'Thea's Tree.' Click image for more.

And yet he is well aware that moderation is not among his talents:

I am simply incapable of working any way but hard and fast. That is the only way I can make it.

When he finishes the first section of the book, jubilant, he rewards himself with a rare period of rest:

And now Book One is done — rhyme, rhyme. And I am going to take Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday off.

One of the most heartening aspects of the diary is that it isn’t a log of the perfection of genius but a deeply assuring record of a flawed human being’s repeated micro-failures, followed by repeated returns to discipline. In one entry, he observes with equal parts incredulous marvel and dismay:

Although I got up early this morning I’m late getting to work and I don’t in the least know why.

In another, he laments:

Today much to my disgust the time has slipped away.

And then, he quickly exhorts himself, as he often does in the diary, which becomes a catalog of productivity mantras and positive self-talk out of doubt’s abyss:

Now to work god damn it and different work. Must get to it.

Particularly of note is Steinbeck’s relationship with distraction, which encompasses everything outside the work — both positive and negative interferences. Life itself is a distraction from the living world he is writing into existence — visits from friends (“Sue and Bob showed up this morning. Had to kick them out. Simply can’t have people around on working days.”), outings on the town (“Good time but Jesus how the work suffers.”), rest periods (“Always on week ends I have the feeling of wasted time.”), his own body (“I’m a little sick today… It is time to go to work and that is all there is to it.”), the dentist (“I go to the dentist at four. After which digression, get back to work.”), and even something as neutral as the seasonality of summer (“Exciting but I can’t allow excitement. Leave that for this winter.”). The diary becomes his voice of reason, in which he is constantly counseling himself on retaining focus, as he does in this entry from late August:

I must re-establish the discipline. Must get tough. So many attractive things are happening that it is difficult.

In another entry, penned shortly before he headed into town for a rodeo, Steinbeck urges himself:

Must be sure not to drink too much.

And yet he fails, then self-flagellates for the failure, writing the next day:

Only a quarter page. Rodeo blues and weakness… Drank lots of whiskey and had a fair time. Empty feeling, empty show. Same enthusiasm circus had whips up… And now home with a little stomach ache that doesn’t come from the stomach. Terrible feeling of lostness and loneliness.

But he manages, always, to get back on the bull –a constant dance of discipline and distraction that recurs throughout the diary. The next day, he writes:

Yesterday was a bust and I’m sorry but I think today will be all right.

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from the unusual and wonderful 'Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters.' Click image for more.

In another entry, he chastises himself capitally — “Big Lazy Time” — and bemoans the fissures of his willpower:

Demoralization complete and seemingly unbeatable. So many things happening that I can’t not be interested.

Well past the midpoint of the book, he decries the external strain on the internal process:

Was ever a book written under greater difficulty?

But he is also well aware of his own responsibility, far from the illusion that external conditions alone determine the course of the work:

I’m afraid for this book, really afraid. Part of the difficulty lies in all the shooting at me, but the other half lies within myself.

In another entry, the dual pull of exasperation and commitment accelerates:

Always something. Just more this time. I can do it and I will do it, by God. It is just the discipline that is all. I’m wasting time today and I don’t care much. Everything goes in circles and I must think WORK.

Indeed, the diary becomes as much a tool of discipline as one of self-forgiveness. One day, he gives himself permission for diversion:

I’m dawdling today… I don’t care if I do dawdle some.

But if there is one lesson to be found in this difficult tango between distraction and discipline, it’s that half the work is abating distraction and the other half not becoming so preoccupied with abating it that the effort itself becomes a distraction device. (After all, E.B. White put it best: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”) At one point, Steinbeck becomes particularly preoccupied with the distracting presence of sound. In mid-June, he despairs:

After spending nearly seven thousand dollars to be alone and quiet, the neighbors run their radio all day and I get the benefit of it. Carol can hear them reading their letters to each other. We may have to move from this beautiful place.

But Steinbeck seems fully conscious of the admonition at the heart of White’s proclamation. In another entry, he writes:

It is particularly fine today because the noise next door has stopped at least for the moment. No cement mixer, or pounding on pipe or things like that. Almost too good to be true. It would be funny if the absence of noise made it hard. It won’t. It is delicious this silence. Absolutely delicious.

In some entries, he goes through the entire cycle of self-doubt, self-consolation, and crystalline awareness of the whole experience in a single stream-of-consciousness paragraph. Here is one from September 7, about a month away from finishing:

Dreamy sleep and coughing from too much smoking and confused by too many things happening and pretty worn out from too long work on manuscript. Have to cut down smoking or something. 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 it isn’t, I’m afraid I’m through in more ways than one. Carol is working too hard now, too. And I’ve been with this book so long now that I don’t know much about it, I’m afraid. Well — have to take that chance. After all, 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. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves. I wish I could do that. I wish I would write only one page a day but I can’t. Got to go on at this rate or suffer for it. It must go on. I can’t stop.

Indeed, he frequently turns to the diary as a form of self-soothing, as much a mechanism for mobilization as one for calming himself:

This book is my sole responsibility and I must stick to it and nothing more. This book is my life now or must be. When it is done, then will be the time for another life. But, not until it is done. And the other lives have begun to get in. There is no doubt of that. That is why I am taking so much time in this diary this morning — to calm myself. My stomach and my nerves are screaming merry hell in protest against the inroads. I won’t be glad when it is done so why try to hurry it done? Now, I hope I calm down enough to start work again.

Underpinning all his practical frustrations and commitment to the writing process is Steinbeck’s larger philosophical awareness of the flash of presence we call life and the way in which we so often mistake the doing for the being:

So many things are happening. This is probably the high point of my life if I only knew it.

He comes to use the diary the way David Lynch uses meditation — as a moral center and an anchor of creative purpose:

When I think how I am not following orders to do what people think I should do, I am scared, but then I think that it is my own work, if anything, that will be remembered. I can’t work for other people. I don’t do good work with their ideas. So I’ll go on with my own.

And yet even as he approaches the end, his self-doubt remains as unshakable as his commitment to finish:

I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing — it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do. Now to work on it.

The book, of course, was far from run-of-the-mill. In addition to earning the two highest accolades in literature, The Grapes of Wrath remained atop the bestseller list for almost a year after it was published on April 14, 1939, and sold nearly 430,000 copies in its first year alone. And therein lies the very thing that makes Working Days a necessary creative scripture for anyone laboring in the arts — the journal’s deeply assuring testament to the fact that even those of exceptional genius are plagued by constant self-doubt, and that perhaps the most important quality setting the brilliant apart from the mediocre is their willingness to let the doubt happen but plow forward anyway, not to be shown up by it but to show up doggedly for the day’s task, however monumental its ask and however small its give.

The great payoff is not critical or commercial success, but the knowledge that one has simply done one’s best.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

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.