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John Steinbeck’s Pen: How the Joy of Handwriting Helps Us Draft the Meaning of Life

“The perfect pen and the perfect paper and me working on work that pleases me and has no note for the critics.”

Edgar Allan Poe believed that handwriting is an indication of character, revealing our “mental qualities.” Mary Gordon saw in its “flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper” a reminder that “however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.” Indeed, the marks we leave on the paper are our most human trails of thought. Few things exercise — and exorcise — the not always seamless collaboration between brain and body like that direct line between the tip of the pen and the tip of the neuron. To be particular about one’s writing instrument is, then, to be particular about thought itself — one can’t afford to be careless about the corporeal transmitter of creative flow.

John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) captures this curious role of the pen as a negotiator between brain and body in a series of disarming observations in Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — that remarkable volume that gave us a glimpse of how the great writer used the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt when he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life, the masterwork that earned him the Pulitzer Prize and paved the way for his Nobel Prize.

In mid-July of 1938, three weeks into the work, Steinbeck makes an endearing note of his writing companion — that trusty conduit of thought:

This good pen holds up beautifully. I guess it will last out the entire book.

Then, on July 25, he records the growing intimacy with his writing instrument:

This pen writes thinner if it is steeper. This has been a good pen to me so far. Never had such a good one.

By mid-August, he is fully in love:

What a wonderful pen this is. It has and is giving me perfect service — never stops flowing for a second and never overflows and blots a word.

Like all love affairs, this one suffers occasional practical challenges. On September 7, Steinbeck decries his fate:

Burned my pen finger with a match the other day and the blister comes right where the pen fits. And it hurts like hell and my handwriting reaches new heights of badness because of it.

Even in the face of temptation by the new and shiny, Steinbeck upholds his calligraphic fidelity. By the following July, he is fully committed:

There is no doubt that this fine old pen is better and smoother than the newer one. I think I’ll keep with this good old pen. I’ve done a lot of writing with it. I only hope it holds up.

Ultimately, Steinbeck’s relationship with his pen parallels the promise of all great romances — a source of sensory satisfaction, but only in the service of the greater spiritual fulfillment. On July 26, 1940, he observes with nonjudgmental curiosity the irrational but deeply nourishing nature of that relationship:

My fingers get a little sticky in this weather so I rub alcohol on them so the pen will be slick in my hand. That seems to be important to me. I don’t know why. But it does. The good feeling of the pen should be kept — should be dry and a smooth point and fine paper like this. There’s something very good about this kind of affair.

He adds what seems to be his most concrete definition of success anywhere in the diary — success not in terms of public acclaim and commercial gain, the idea of which he deeply detested, but in Thoreau’s sense of profound private fulfillment. Steinbeck writes:

The perfect pen and the perfect paper and me working on work that pleases me and has no note for the critics.

His language becomes increasingly poetic as his romance with the pen intensifies. On September 29 of 1940, he writes:

Oh! Lord, how good this paper feels under this pen. I can sit here writing and the words slipping out like grapes out of their skins and I feel so good doing it.

That day, as he tussles with news of ongoing wartime devastation, Steinbeck captures in a single exquisite passage the almost mystical quality of writing by hand — that strange way in which the pen becomes a projection of the psyche, channeling its deepest longings and languishings as the hand drafts the meaning of life itself:

Here is a strange thing — almost like a secret. You start out putting words down and there are three things — you, the pen, and the page. Then gradually the three things merge until they are all one and you feel about the page as you do about your arm. Only you love it more than you love your arm. Some day I will be all alone and lonely — either dead and alone or alive and alone, and what will I do then? Then those things I have now and do not know will become so desperately dear that they will be aches. Then what? There will be no way to cure those aches, no way. In that coldness nothing will come. Things are leaving me now because they came too fast — too many of them — and being unable to receive them I threw them out and soon they will not come any more. This process is called life or living or any one of a number of things like that. In other words these are the soundless words, the words that have no being at all. The grey birds of loneliness hopping about. I thought that there might be a time or a condition different from that. But I know now — there isn’t any other way.

Complement Steinbeck’s Working Days, which is rife with a myriad such rewarding asides and doubly rewarding in its central substance, with some of humanity’s most celebrated writers on the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

Published April 9, 2015




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