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John Steinbeck on Writing, the Crucible of Creativity, and the Mobilizing Power of the Impossible

“A good writer always works at the impossible.”

John Steinbeck on Writing, the Crucible of Creativity, and the Mobilizing Power of the Impossible

An advocate for the creative benefits of keeping a diary, Virginia Woolf saw this informal practice as training ground on which one can “loosen the ligaments” for formal writing. But hardly anyone has put private writing to more fruitful use as a creative and psychological sandbox for public-facing art than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968).

Thirteen years after he completed the remarkable and psychologically revelatory journal he kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck enlisted another private medium of informal writing in perfecting his public prose. In January of 1951, as he was setting out to write East of Eden — a book he considered the most difficult he ever attempted, the ultimate test of his talent and discipline as a writer — Steinbeck decided to loosen his creative ligaments by writing a daily “letter” to his dear friend and editor, Pascal Covici.

An ardent believer in the spiritual rewards of handwriting with the perfect writing instrument, Steinbeck began pouring his compact longhand into the large-format ruled notebook Covici had given him. He wrote a letter a day, each over a thousand words on average, until the first draft of the novel was finished 276 days later. A hobbyist woodworker, Steinbeck delivered the manuscript to Covici in a special wooden box he lovingly carved to hold the masterwork his wife considered his magnum opus.

On the pages of the blue-lined notebook, Steinbeck worked out and fine-tuned his ideas about writing, the creative process, family life, the purpose of art, and his most elemental convictions. These letters were eventually published as Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (public library) — an extraordinary document illuminating not only the mental, spiritual, and creative interiority of one of the most formidable artists who ever lived, but the very nature of creativity itself.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the letters is the sincerity with which they reveal the inseparability of an artist’s selfhood and personal life, with all of its elations and anguishes, from his art. (Patti Smith addressed this indivisibility in her moving letter to Robert Mapplethorpe.) Particularly touching is Steinbeck’s love for his two young sons, four and a half and six and a half at the time, to whom he addressed the novel.

In his very first letter to Covici, with undertones evocative of artist Anne Truitt’s reflections on the parallels between being an artist and being a parent, Steinbeck writes:

I am choosing to write this book to my sons. They are little boys now and they will never know what they came from through me, unless I tell them. It is not written for them to read now but when they are grown and the pains and joys have tousled them a little. And if the book is addressed to them, it is for a good reason. I want them to know how it was, I want to tell them directly, and perhaps by speaking directly to them I shall speak directly to other people.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the seventh of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing, Steinbeck adds:

One can go off into fanciness if one writes to a huge nebulous group…

John Steinbeck with his sons, Thom and John. Paris, 1954. Photograph courtesy of The Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley.
John Steinbeck with his sons, Thom and John, in Paris, 1954. (Photograph courtesy of The Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley.)

But what makes the novel so abidingly powerful is that in speaking to his children, Steinbeck speaks to the most innocent parts of all of us — something he captures in articulating why his boys are the perfect objects of his artistic intent:

They have no background in the world of literature, they don’t know the great stories of the world as we do. And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all — the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness. I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable — how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born.

Among these inseparable doubles are also the batteries of knowing and not-knowing, of the possible and the impossible. In an exquisite passage that captures the heart of why artists make art, Steinbeck adds:

I shall tell them this story against the background of the county I grew up in and along the river I know and do not love very much. For I have discovered that there are other rivers. And this my boys will not know for a long time nor can they be told. A great many never come to know that there are other rivers. Perhaps that knowledge is saved for maturity and very few people ever mature. It is enough if they flower and reseed. That is all that nature requires of them. But sometimes in a man or a woman awareness takes place — not very often and always inexplainable. There are no words for it because there is no one ever to tell. This is a secret not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness. The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through — not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible. There is another kind who pulls in his horizons, drops his mind as one lowers rifle sights. And giving up the impossible he gives up writing.

Journal of a Novel is a revelatory read in its totality, brimming with Steinbeck’s earnest intensity and beautifully articulated insight into the machinery and mystique of creativity. Complement this particular portion with Annie Dillard on the animating force of great art and Henry James on its ultimate purpose in human life, then revisit Steinbeck on creative integrity, discipline and self-doubt, the difficult art of the friend breakup, and his perennially wonderful advice on falling in love, penned in a letter to one of his sons.


Plato’s Two Charioteers: Free Will, Moral Agency, and How to Negotiate Our Capacities for Good and Evil

“Freedom isn’t the absence of control; rather, control is the essence of freedom.”

Plato’s Two Charioteers: Free Will, Moral Agency, and How to Negotiate Our Capacities for Good and Evil

“If I conclude that there is no free will,” astrophysicist Janna Levin observed in her spectacular conversation with Krista Tippett, “it doesn’t mean that I should go run amok in the streets. I’m no more free to make that choice than I am to make any other choice.” This seemingly paradoxical proposition counters the temptation to view free will as a purgatory between ultimate resignation and ultimate responsibility, and instead captures one of the most vital and vitalizing truths of the human experience — that our locus of agency, the very seedbed of our personhood, resides not in absolute freedom but in the very necessity for exercising choice.

That’s what philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein metabolizes in a portion of her thoroughly excellent Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (public library) — an insightful, inventively argued case for how, nearly two and a half millennia later, the Ancient Greek philosopher’s perennial ideas about morality, happiness, democracy, and science can help us navigate modern life.


Goldstein, who grew up enamored with science fiction, weaves into her philosophical inquiry fictionalized dialogues in which Plato converses with contemporary people he encounters in various contexts — from a cable news interview to a 92Y panel — exploring ideas based on his actual ancient dialogues. In one of these exchanges, her personified Plato considers free will, moral agency, and the perennial tug-of-war between our capacities for good and evil:

The free person has a severely restricted range of choices… I will make my statement sound even more paradoxical. The free person’s choices are completely determined.

Goldstein’s Plato cushions the paradox with what is at once a caveat and a central truth, based on the charioteer metaphor from his Phaedrus dialogue:

The person’s own better nature … is determining that person’s choices. Imagine a two-horsed charioteer, with one course unruly and unable to stay the course, and the other horse knowing his way even without the whip or goad. The charioteer is only to control the bad horse so that the better horse may lead him in order to be free. Freedom isn’t the absence of control; rather, control is the essence of freedom.

Complement Plato at the Googleplex with Goldstein on how Einstein and Gödel changed our experience of time and what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Hannah Arendt on what free will really means and young Sylvia Plath on how we can know whether it exists.


Dostoyevsky on the Heart vs. the Mind and How We Come to Know Truth

“Nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason… Reason is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire.”

Dostoyevsky on the Heart vs. the Mind and How We Come to Know Truth

“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature,” Martha Nussbaum — one of the most insightful and influential philosophers of our time — asserted in her terrific treatise on the intelligence of the emotions. “They are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.” It’s an idea proposed — and resisted — for centuries, if not millennia. “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know,” Blaise Pascal wrote in contemplating intuition and the intellect in the 17th century.

But perhaps the most beautiful meditation on this abiding tug-of-war between reason and emotion comes not from a hoary philosopher but from a teenage boy — one who would grow up to become the greatest psychological writer of all time.

Decades before he found the meaning of life in a dream and was fortunate to find himself in one of history’s most beautiful loves, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) tussled with the interplay of the heart and the mind in how we come to know truth. In an 1838 letter to his brother Mikhail, penned shortly before his seventeenth birthday and included in Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends (public library), Dostoyevsky accuses his brother of being apt to “philosophize like a poet” and writes:

To know more, one must feel less, and vice versa… Nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason. Were we spirits, we could dwell in that region of ideas over which our souls hover, seeking the solution. But we are earth-born beings, and can only guess at the Idea — not grasp it by all sides at once. The guide for our intelligences through the temporary illusion into the innermost centre of the soul is called Reason. Now, Reason is a material capacity, while the soul or spirit lives on the thoughts which are whispered by the heart. Thought is born in the soul. Reason is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire. When human reason … penetrates into the domain of knowledge, it works independently of the feeling, and consequently of the heart.

He comes full-circle to the divergent ways in which poetry and philosophy bring us into contact with truth, both necessary but one, in his view, superior:

Philosophy cannot be regarded as a mere equation where nature is the unknown quantity! Remark that the poet, in the moment of inspiration, comprehends God, and consequently does the philosopher’s work. Consequently poetic inspiration is nothing less than philosophical inspiration. Consequently philosophy is nothing but poetry, a higher degree of poetry!

Complement this particular fragment of Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends with British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher, writing a century and a half later, on how to see with the eye of the heart, then revisit Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people and his beloved wife on the secret to a happy marriage.


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