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Six Tips on Writing from John Steinbeck

On the value of unconscious association, or why the best advice is no advice.

If this is indeed the year of reading more and writing better, we’ve been right on course with David Ogilvy’s 10 no-nonsense tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, and various invaluable advice from other great writers.

Now comes Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) with six tips on writing, originally set down in a 1962 letter to the actor and writer Robert Wallsten included in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Steinbeck’s advice on falling in love.

Steinbeck counsels:

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

But perhaps most paradoxically yet poetically, twelve years prior — in 1963, immediately after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception” — Steinbeck issued a thoughtful disclaimer to all such advice:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that make a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”

If you’re bold enough to defy Steinbeck’s anti-advice advice, you can do so with these nine essential books on more and writing. Find more timeless counsel on the craft in the collected wisdom of great writers, then see how Steinbeck used his diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt.

Open Culture

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John McPhee on Writing and the Relationship Between Artistic Originality and Self-Doubt

“Never stop battling for the survival of your own unique stamp.”

John McPhee on Writing and the Relationship Between Artistic Originality and Self-Doubt

“I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were.” So wrote John Steinbeck as he was working on the book that earned him a Pulitzer and paved the way for his Nobel Prize. “I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability,” he exorcised the demon of self-doubt in his diary — the demon that discomposes every writer until, as Virginia Woolf observed while revolutionizing literature with Orlando, they no longer know whether they are “the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.” Few are the Whitmans who can proclaim: “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood.” Even Whitman was not a Whitman but many Whitmans, fractured and dissonant — even for him, this was but one multitude speaking; another, in the very verses that prompted the divinest genius in him to cry out in such self-celebration, whispered this universal assurance:

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?

How to live with the dark patches of self-doubt, how to regard their umbra not as an obstacle on the path to good writing but as the path itself, is what John McPhee addresses in a portion of one of those supremely rare, supremely helpful meta-masterworks of literature, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (public library).

John McPhee (Photograph: Princeton University)

From the hard-conquered promontory of his half-century contributorship for The New Yorker, he looks back on his early days as a freelancer, still adrift in the torrents of self-doubt despite his early successes:

In some twenty months, I had submitted half a dozen pieces, short and long, and the editor, William Shawn, had bought them all. You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed.

Considering what helped him through the disorientation of self-doubt, what helps anyone, he adds:

Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help. The help is spoken and informal, and includes insight, encouragement, and reassurance with regard to a current project.

But whatever the hue and texture of self-doubt may be, McPhee argues, its very presence is evidence of correctly calibrated creative aspiration:

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists? And unless you can identify what is not succeeding — unless you can see those dark clunky spots that are giving you such a low opinion of your prose as it develops — how are you going to be able to tone it up and make it work?

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In consonance with Rachel Carson’s insistence that “if you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in… you will interest other people” — a downright countercultural orientation in our era of catering to ever-lowering existing tastes rather than elevating and cultivating new sensibilities, new interests, new frames of reference — McPhee shines a sidewise gleam on the relationship between self-doubt and originality. Resonating between the lines of this excellent part-manual part-memoir of writing, reverberating throughout his own symphonic body of work, is the subtle, splendid assurance that self-doubt is a function of daring to try the untried, daring to move beyond the template and the formula that leave little room for doubt and rise to the challenge of the unexampled. Whatever improvements may be made on your writing — stylistically or conceptually, by an editor or by your own redrafting eye — McPhee urges for the fierce preservation of that unexampled insignia:

Never stop battling for the survival of your own unique stamp.

And yet that stamp, he reminds us, is carved by the blade of existing excellence. Echoing Mary Oliver’s charming insistence that “the perils of not imitating are greater than the perils of imitating” and affirming Oliver Sacks’s insight into the progression from imitation to originality, McPhee cites what he told his own daughter when she lamented that her style either feels “overwhelmingly self-conscious and strained” or mimics whatever she is reading at the moment:

The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered — wherever and whenever — and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own. Rapidly, the components of imitation fade. What remains is a new element in your own voice, which is not in any way an imitation. Your manner as a writer takes form in this way, a fragment at a time. A style that lacks strain and self-consciousness is what you seem to aspire to, or you wouldn’t be bringing the matter up. Therefore, your goal is in the right place. So practice taking shots at it. A relaxed, unself-conscious style is not something that one person is born with and another not. Writers do not spring full-blown from the ear of Zeus.”

Or, as Auden observed in one of his singular strokes of wry perspicacity, “some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.”

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Complement this fragment of McPhee’s altogether essential Draft No. 4 with Steinbeck’s astonishing use of the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt, then revisit James Baldwin’s advice on writing and a dose from Hemingway, T.S. Eliot’s wonderful letter of wisdom and encouragement to an adolescent girl aspiring to be a writer, musician Ben Folds on how to find your artistic voice, and Whitman on how to keep criticism from sinking your creative confidence.

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Engraving Is Eternal Work: How to Dodge a Deadline Like William Blake

A subtle lesson in taking responsibility while protecting the integrity of the creative process and the freedom of the artistic imagination.

Engraving Is Eternal Work: How to Dodge a Deadline Like William Blake

Neil Gaiman has semi-facetiously located the two primary sources of good ideas in desperation and deadlines. Still, deadlines come and go and, devoid of ideas or dry of their actualization, we despair. We make excuses. Sometimes — like when the dog actually ate Steinbeck’s manuscript — they happen to be true. But the best excuse is always the truth itself — creative work is slower and more sacred in its unwillable transmissions from the muse than we ever like to admit.

That is what William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) addressed in a short, subtly transcendent letter found in Michael Bird’s Artists’ Letters (public library) — a collection of correspondence drawn from half a millennium of creative titans, spanning friendships and loves, family and patronage, skill-sharing and life-advice, including glimpses of such famous relationships as those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, and Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Blake, celebrated today for his fathomless poetic and artistic imagination, was trained as an engraver. Bookending his career were his early engravings for the children’s moral tales by the political philosopher and trailblazing feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he revered, and his drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, on which he worked until his dying day. Upon seeing his engravings for Book of Job, which Blake completed a month before his death, the great photographer Edward Weston exclaimed in his daybook:

An hour with his engraving means more to me than a month of reading, — more spirituality, — for my eyes to receive — and give — more directly, surely, than any other of my senses.

In 1800, shortly after the death of the popular poet William Cowper, his wealthy friend and fellow poet William Hayley set about commemorating him in what would become a handsome three-volume biography. He commissioned Blake to illustrate it and asked him to move from London to a cottage in Sussex near his own newly built “hermitage” to work on the project. Blake, who so admired Cowper’s writing that he thought his letters “ought to be printed in letters of Gold & ornamented with Jewels of Heaven,” agreed.

Over the three years Blake spent in Sussex, he considered these engravings the “principal labor” of his time. But Hayley’s controlling proximity began to wear on the free-spirited artist, who just a year earlier had composed one of the most beautiful letters of all time, defending the integrity of the creative spirit and the freedom of the artistic imagination. The work slowed and the relationship soured, but Blake maintained absolute fidelity to his art and his creative process.

On March 12, 1804, after his return to London and after the first two volumes of the biography were published, Blake wrote to Hayley to explain, in a stunning tapestry of the practical and the poetic, why he had missed the deadline for the remaining two engravings.

Dear Sir,

I begin with the latter end of your letter & grieve more for Miss Poole’s ill-health than for my failure in sending proofs, tho’ I am very sorry that I cannot send before Saturday’s Coach. Engraving is Eternal work; the two plates are almost finish’d. You will receive proofs of them for Lady Hesketh, whose copy of Cowper’s letters ought to be printed in letters of Gold & ornamented with Jewels of Heaven, Havilah, Eden & all the countries where Jewels abound. I curse & bless Engraving alternately, because it takes so much time & is so untractable, tho’ capable of such beauty & perfection.

My wife desires me to Express her Love to you, Praying for Miss Poole’s perfect recovery, & we both remain,

Your Affectionate,
Will Blake

Hayley’s Life of Cowper, featuring six engravings by Blake, earned the author £11,000 — more than $600,000 today. Blake died destitute, isolated, and half-mad, but the embers of his genius, celebrated on a par with Beethoven’s, went on to inspire generations of artists as diverse as Maurice Sendak, whose early illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence became his lifelong creative compass, and Patti Smith, who so lyrically reverences Blake’s legacy as a guiding sun in the cosmos of creativity.

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Advice on Writing from Emily Dickinson’s Editor

“Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence.”

Advice on Writing from Emily Dickinson’s Editor

“You can never be sure / you die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good / if you have to be sure don’t write,” W.S. Merwin wrote in his gorgeous poem encapsulating his greatest mentor’s advice. No one has embodied this ethos more fully than Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886), who lived and died a century earlier never knowing whether anything she wrote was any good, never knowing whether and how and that her body of work would revolutionize literature and rewrite the common record of human thought and feeling.

In her thirty-first year, on the pages of a national magazine, Dickinson — a central figure in Figuring, from which this essay is adapted — encountered the person who would become the closest thing she ever had to a literary mentor.

In the spring of 1862, exactly four decades ahead of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, The Atlantic Monthly published a twenty-page piece titled “A Letter to a Young Contributor” by the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Thomas Wentworth Higginson (December 22, 1823–May 9, 1911).

Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Addressing young writers — primarily the many women who sent the Atlantic manuscripts for consideration under male pseudonyms — the thirty-nine-year-old Higginson writes:

No editor can ever afford the rejection of a good thing, and no author the publication of a bad one. The only difficulty lies in drawing the line.

A good editor, Higginson asserts, has learned to draw that line by having “educated his eye till it has become microscopic, like a naturalist’s, and can classify nine out of ten specimens by one glance at a scale or a feather.” He chooses a strangely morbid metaphor to illustrate the editorial challenge and thrill of finding that rare undiscovered genius among “the vast range of mediocrity”:

To take the lead in bringing forward a new genius is as fascinating a privilege as that of the physician who boasted to Sir Henry Halford of having been the first man to discover the Asiatic cholera and to communicate it to the public.

He goes on to offer a bundle of advice on how an aspiring writer is to court her prospective editor: Revise amply before sending in your manuscript; write legibly with “good pens, black ink, nice white paper and plenty of it”; develop a style of expression not “polite and prosaic” but “so saturated with warm life and delicious association that every sentence shall palpitate and thrill with the mere fascination of the syllables”; counterbalance profundity of sentiment with levity of style; know that “there is no severer test of literary training than in the power to prune out your most cherished sentence, when you find that the sacrifice will help the symmetry or vigor of the whole”; don’t show off your erudition but showcase its fruits; and remember that “a phrase may outweigh a library.” He writes:

There may be phrases which shall be palaces to dwell in, treasure-houses to explore; a single word may be a window from which one may perceive all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them. Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence… Labor, therefore, not in thought alone, but in utterance; clothe and reclothe your grand conception twenty times, if need be, until you find some phrase that with its grandeur shall be lucid also.

In a sun-filled bedroom fifty miles to the west, a woman who had crowded lifetimes of passion into her thirty-one years and corked it up in the volcanic bosom of her being devoured the piece—a woman who would boldly defy Higginson’s indictment that a writer should use dashes only in “short allowance” or else they “will lose all their proper power,” a woman whose reclusive genius would become his choleric discovery.

Emily Dickinson’s home, the Homestead.(Photograph: Maria Popova)

For more than a decade, Dickinson had been welding her words to her experience with white heat in the private furnace of her being, sharing her poems only with her intimates. Now she felt beckoned to step across the threshold of the door Higginson had set ajar with his open letter inviting unknown writers into the public life of literature.

On April 16, 1862, Emily Dickinson sent Thomas Wentworth Higginson four of her poems, along with a short, arresting note in the slanted swoop of her barely decipherable hand, stripped of the era’s epistolary etiquette. “Mr. Higginson,” she addressed him bluntly, with no formal salutation, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” She was likely making an allusion, whether conscious or not, to her revered Aurora Leigh, in which Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s heroine exults in her calling while struggling to become a published poet:

I felt
My heart’s life throbbing in my verse to show
It lived

And then Dickinson added:

The Mind is so near itself — it cannot see, distinctly — and I have none to ask. Should you think it breathed — and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.

She didn’t sign the letter, either, but instead enclosed a smaller sealed envelope with her name inscribed in pencil on a cream-colored notecard — a choice that would still puzzle Higginson thirty years later.

Two more letters followed shortly. Dickinson ended the third with the come-hither of a bespoke verse, then asked seductively: “Will you be my Preceptor, Mr. Higginson?” He would, and he did, commencing a correspondence that would last the poet’s lifetime.

Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Art by Maira Kalman. (The New Yorker)

But although Dickinson had so insistently enlisted Higginson as her “Preceptor,” again and again she would reject his efforts to tame and commercialize her poetry, to make it “more orderly,” buoyed by a quiet confidence in the integrity of her unorthodox verse. “Could you tell me how to grow,” she implored in her third letter to Higginson, “or is it unconveyed — like Melody — or Witchcraft?” When he offered criticism, then worried that he might have been too harsh, she assured him with humility and aplomb that it was all welcome: “Men do not call the surgeon, to commend—the Bone, but to set it, Sir, and fracture within, is more critical.” And then she promptly sent him four more poems, unheeding of his editorial suggestions.

Over the years, Dickinson would fracture Higginson’s stiff understanding of art, and through the cracks a new kind of light would flood his world. “There is always one thing to be grateful for — that one is one’s self & not somebody else,” she would tell him. Here stood a writer who was unassailably her own self. Between her unruly punctuation, Higginson would eventually find “flashes of wholly original and profound insight into nature and life,” language ablaze with “an extraordinary vividness of descriptive and imaginative power.” When her poems finally entered the world on November 12, 1890 — four years after her death — Higginson exulted in the preface:

In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed. In other cases, as in the few poems of shipwreck or of mental conflict, we can only wonder at the gift of vivid imagination by which this recluse woman can delineate, by a few touches, the very crises of physical or mental conflict… But the main quality of these poems is that of extraordinary grasp and insight, uttered with an uneven vigor sometimes exasperating, seemingly wayward, but really unsought and inevitable.

The volume was an astonishing success, much to the chagrin of Houghton Mifflin, who had originally rejected it. Five hundred copies vanished from the shelves on the first day of publication. Within the first year, the book had gone through eleven printings, and nearly eleven thousand copies had been absorbed into the body of culture.

That year, as the rapids of Dickinson’s verse sprang into the world, William James’s groundbreaking Principles of Psychology coined the notion of stream of consciousness. Soon, as English reviewers launched upon Dickinson attacks unequaled since those on Shelley and Keats a century earlier, Alice James — William James’s brilliant bedridden sister — would write wryly in her diary, itself an unheralded triumph of literature:

It is reassuring to hear the English pronouncement that Emily Dickinson is fifth-rate, they have such a capacity for missing quality; the robust evades them equally with the subtle… What tome of philosophy resumes the cheap farce or expresses the highest point of view of the aspiring soul more completely than the following —

     How dreary to be somebody
     How public, like a frog
     To tell your name the livelong day
     To an admiring bog.

For a different but intimately related side of Dickinson, savor her electric love letters to Susan Gilbert — her closest lifelong bond, who inspired the vast majority of her poetry — then take in some timeless advice on the craft from some of the greatest writers in the century and a half since: James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Jeanette Winterson, Mary Oliver, Zadie Smith, Susan Sontag, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, John Steinbeck, and Rachel Carson, another heroine of Figuring.

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