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The Effortless Effort of Creativity: Jane Hirshfield on Storytelling, the Art of Concentration, and Difficulty as a Consecrating Force of Creative Attention

“In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.”

The Effortless Effort of Creativity: Jane Hirshfield on Storytelling, the Art of Concentration, and Difficulty as a Consecrating Force of Creative Attention

“The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us,” James Baldwin wrote in lamenting the artist’s struggle at a time “when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make.” We no longer have Baldwin to awaken us to the gravest perils of our own era — one in which the poetic spirit isn’t merely neglected but is being forced to surrender at gunpoint. To produce poets, in this largest Baldwinian sense of creative seers of human truth, seems to be among the most urgent tasks of our time.

The mastery of that task is what the poet Jane Hirshfield examines in her 1997 essay collection Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (public library).

Defining poetry as “the clarification and magnification of being,” she writes: “Here, as elsewhere in life, attentiveness only deepens what it regards.” In the superb opening essay, titled “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration,” Hirshfield examines the nature of this clarified, magnified deepening of being — concentration as consecration — by probing its six main components: music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice. Although focused on the reading and writing of poetry, her insight ripples outward in widening circles (as Rilke might say) to encompass every kind of writing, all art, and even the art of living itself.

Jane Hirshfield (Photograph: Nick Rozsa)
Jane Hirshfield (Photograph: Nick Rozsa)

Hirshfield writes:

Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections — language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who are, what we are. It begins, that is, in the mind and body of concentration.

By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors of perception open; James Joyce called it epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical — a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, a mind thought “too deep for tears.” Within action, it is felt as a grace state: time slows and extends, and a person’s every movement and decision seem to partake of perfection. Concentration can also be placed into things — it radiates undimmed from Vermeer’s paintings, from the small marble figure of a lyre-player from ancient Greece, from a Chinese three-footed bowl — and into musical notes, words, ideas. In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.

Considering the unparalleled pleasures of practicing familiar to all who endeavor in the “absorbing errand” of creative work, particularly to those who attain mastery, Hirshfield points to deliberate practice as an essential aspect of concentration — one that transcends mechanical skill and reaches into the psychological, even the spiritual:

Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest or boredom.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from The White Cat and the Monk
Illustration by Sydney Smith from The White Cat and the Monk, a 9th-century ode to the joy of uncompetitive purposefulness

With an eye to the obsessive daily routines and strange creative rituals of many writers, and to the state of intense focus in the creative act known as “flow,” Hirshfield explores the path to concentration:

Immersion in art itself can be the place of entry… Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears — paradoxically — at the moment willed effort drops away… At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present — a feeling of joy, or even grief — but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.

This may explain why the creative is so often described as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in.” We refer, however metaphorically, to the Muse, and speak of profound artistic discovery and revelation. And however much we may come to believe that “the real” is subjective and constructed, we still feel art is a path not just to beauty, but to truth: if “truth” is a chosen narrative, then new stories, new aesthetics, are also new truths.

A century after Rilke extolled the soul-expanding power of difficulty and urged us to “arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult,” Hirshfield writes:

Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration — expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering’s only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way: “For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river — / Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.”

Illustration by Andrea Dezsö for a special edition of the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Echoing Nietzsche’s insistence that a full life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty and Alfred Kazin’s beautiful case for the reality-enlarging quality of contradiction, Hirshfield adds:

Difficulty then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist. Sartre called genius “not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances.” Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment into limestone, the pressure of an artist’s concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance — a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue’s draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exist becomes itself. Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows.

Hirshfield turns to the role of language in concentration and the role of concentration in language, in writing, in poetry itself:

Great sweeps of thought, emotion, and perception are compressed to forms the mind is able to hold — into images, sentences, and stories that serve as entrance tokens to large and often slippery realms of being… Words hold fast in the mind, seeded with the surplus of beauty and meaning that is concentration’s mark.

More than a century after William James asserted that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity” in his seminal theory of how our bodies affect our feelings, Hirshfield examines the dimensions of time and space in language through the focusing lens of the body:

Shaped language is strangely immortal, living in a meadowy freshness outside of time.

But it also lives in the moment, in us. Emotion, intellect, and physiology are inseparably connected in the links of a poem’s sound. It is difficult to feel intimacy while shouting, to rage in a low whisper, to skip and weep at the same time.

Well before scientists came to study how repetition beguiles the brain, Hirshfield considers the enchantment of rhythmic regularity. In a passage that calls to mind pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner’s notion of “effective surprise” as the pillar of creativity, she describes the affective surprise at the heart of every great work of art:

A regular returning in one dimension can bring unexpected turns in another: hunting a rhyme, the mind falls on a wholly surprising idea. This balancing between expected and unforeseen, both in aesthetic and cognitive structures, is near the center of every work of art. Through the gate of concentration, defining yet open, both aspects enter.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

Hirshfield examines the role of rhetoric as a gatekeeper of concentration:

Before we can concentrate easily, we need to know where we stand. This is the work of rhetoric… Traditionally defined as the art of choosing the words that will best convey the speaker’s intent, rhetoric’s concern is the precise and beautiful movement of mind in language.

In a sentiment of exceeding timeliness today — one that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s masterwork on lying in politics and Aldous Huxley’s lamentation of our mistrust of sincerity — Hirshfield adds:

Americans distrust artful speech, believing that sincerity and deliberation cannot coexist… Romantic temperament … equates spontaneity and truth. But the word art is neighbor to artifice, and in human culture, as in the animal and vegetable worlds, desirability entails not only the impulse of the moment but also enchantment, exaggeration, rearrangement, and deception. We don’t find the fragrance of night-scented flowering tobacco or the display of a peacock’s tail insincere — by such ruses this world conducts its erotic business. To acknowledge rhetoric’s presence in the beauty of poems, or any other form of speech, is only to agree to what already is.

In another thought cast at poetry but ablaze with truth about all art and about life itself, Hirshfield observes:

To be aware of a poem’s effects … requires only our alert responsiveness, our presence to each shift in the currents of language with an answering shift in our being… at a level closer to daydream. But daydream with an added intensity: while writing, the mind moves between consciousness and the unconscious in the effortless effort of concentration. The result, if the poet’s intensity of attention is sufficient, will be a poem that brims with its own knowledge, water trembling as if miraculously above the edge of a cup. Such a poem will be perfect in the root sense of the word: “thoroughly done.”

Daydreaming is indeed an apt analogy, for the making of poetry — as, again, the making of all art — radiates from a communion of the conscious and the unconscious, a more wakeful counterpart to that “something nameless” which Mark Strand elegized in his sublime ode to dreams. Hirshfield captures this beautifully:

Making a poem is neither a wholly conscious activity nor an act of unconscious transcription — it is a way for new thinking and feeling to come into existence, a way in which disparate modes of meaning and being may join. This is why the process of revising a poem is no arbitrary tinkering, but a continued honing of the self at the deepest level.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

This dreamlike aspect comes most fully alive in one of poetry’s great powers — phanopoeia, the making of images. Hirshfield writes of the poetic image:

The deepest of image’s meanings is its recognition of our continuity with the rest of existence: within a good image, outer and subjective worlds illuminate one another, break bread together, converse. In this way, image increases both vision and what is seen. Keeping one foot braced in the physical and the other in the realm of inner experience, image enlivens both.

But in bridging inner reality with the outer world, Hirshfield argues, this halfway house of transcendence brings home something even larger, even more monumental:

Poetry moves consciousness toward empathy.

Intelligence and receptivity are connected — human meaning is made by seeing what is… The outer world can be transformed by a subjectively infused vision; inner event placed into the language of the physical takes on an equally mysterious addition.

A powerful poetic image, Hirshfield suggests, both wrests truth out of reality and confers truth upon it:

In a good image, something previously unformulated (in the most literal sense) comes into the realm of the expressed. Without precisely this image, we feel, the world’s store of truth would be diminished; and conversely, when a writer brings into language a new image that is fully right, what is knowable of existence expands.

[…]

Thinking within the fields of image, the mind crosses also into the knowledge the unconscious holds — into the shape-shifting wisdom of dream. Poetic concentration allows us to bring the dream-mind’s compression, displacement, wit, depth, and surprise into our waking minds. It is within dreamlife we first learn to read rain as grief, or the may that a turtle’s walking may speak of containment and an awkward, impeccable fortitude.

But the aspect of concentration perhaps most widely relevant beyond poetry is that of narrative — our supreme hedge against the entropy of existence. Hirshfield writes:

Storytelling, like rhetoric, pulls us in through the cognitive mind as much as through the emotions. It answers both our curiosity and our longing for shapely forms: our profound desire to know what happens, and our persistent hope that what happens will somehow make sense. Narrative instructs us in both these hungers and their satisfaction, teaching us to perceive and to relish the arc of moments and the arc of lives. If shapeliness is an illusion, it is one we require — it shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the many levels of the self.

[…]

Story remains a basic human path toward the discovery and ordering of meaning and beauty.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall, a sweet illustrated story about how we fall in love with books

Echoing Ursula K. Le Guin’s abiding wisdom on how imaginative storytelling expands our repertoire of possibilities, Hirshfield adds:

Story, at its best, becomes a canvas to which the reader as well as the writer must bring the full range of memory, intellect, and imaginative response. The best stories are almost mythlike in their ability to support alternative readings, different conclusions.

[…]

Narrative carries the knowledge of our alteration through the shifting currents of circumstance and time.

Narrative’s essential counterpart is voice — the waveform of the soul in writing. Hirshfield writes:

A person’s heard voice is replete with information. So it is with the voice of a poem.

[…]

Voice … is the body language of a poem — the part that cannot help but reveal what it is. Everything that has gone into making us who we are is held there. Yet we also speak of writers “finding their voice.” The phrase is both meaningful and odd, a perennial puzzle: how can we “find” what we already use? The answer lies, paradoxically, in the quality of listening that accompanies self-aware speech: singers, to stay in tune, must hear not only the orchestral music they sing with, but also themselves. Similarly, writers who have “found a voice” are those whose ears turn at once inward and outward, both toward their own nature, thought patterns, and rhythms, and toward those of the culture at large.

In the essay’s closing passages, Hirshfield once again captures a central truth about poetry that sets free a larger truth about life itself — about the limits of attention, about the relationship between what is known and what is knowable, about the nature of transformation, about the perennial incompleteness of being. She writes:

No matter how carefully we read or how much attention we bring to bear, a good poem can never be completely entered, completely known. If it is the harvest of true concentration, it will know more than can be said in any other way. And because it thinks by music and image, by story and passion and voice, poetry can do what other forms of thinking cannot: approximate the actual flavor of life, in which subjective and objective become one, in which conceptual mind and the inexpressible presence of things become one.

Letting this wideness of being into ourselves, as readers or as writers, while staying close to the words themselves, we begin to find in poems a way of entering both language and being on their own terms. Poetry leads us into the self, but also away from it. Transparency is both capacious and focused. Free to turn inward and outward, free to remain still and wondering amid the mysteries of mind and world, we arrive, for a moment, at a kind of fullness that overspills into everything. One breath taken completely; one poem, fully written, fully read — in such a moment, anything can happen. The pressed oil of words can blaze up into music, into image, into the heart and mind’s knowledge. The lit and shadowed placed within us can be warmed.

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry is a small but immensely largehearted book, replete with radiant wisdom on the creative act of composing a life, in poetry or in pulse. Complement it with Hirshfield’s beautiful ode to the leap day, then revisit Mary Oliver on what attention really means, Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit, and great writers’ collected wisdom on the craft.

BP

Virginia Woolf on the Relationship Between Loneliness and Creativity

“If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.”

Virginia Woolf on the Relationship Between Loneliness and Creativity

There is a kind of loneliness that lodges itself in the psyche and never fully leaves, a loneliness most anguishing not in solitude but in companionship and amid the crowd. If solitude fertilizes the imagination, loneliness vacuums it of vitality and sands the baseboards of the spirit with the scratchy restlessness of longing — for connection, for communion, for escape. And yet it is out of this restlessness that so many great works of art are born.

“We have all known the long loneliness,” Dorothy Day wrote, but some — artists, perhaps — know it more intimately than others and few artists have articulated this knowledge with more stunning and stirring lucidity than Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941). Loneliness permeates A Writer’s Diary (public library) — that abiding source of Woolf’s wisdom on such varied dimensions of existence as the paradoxes of aging, the elasticity of time, the key to lasting relationships, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary. In fact, it is precisely the transmutation of loneliness into connection with the universal human experience that lends Woolf’s writing its timeless penetrative power.

virginiawoolf
Virginia Woolf (Photograph: George Charles Beresford)

In the late summer of 1928, a month before the publication of Orlando subverted stereotypes and revolutionized culture, 44-year-old Woolf found herself grappling once more with the yin-yang of loneliness and creation. In a diary entry penned at Monk’s House — the countryside cottage she and her husband had bought in Sussex a decade earlier, where she crafted some of her most beloved works — she writes:

Often down here I have entered into a sanctuary … of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel. That is one of the experiences I have had here in some Augusts; and got then to a consciousness of what I call “reality”: a thing I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist. Reality I call it. And I fancy sometimes this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek. But who knows — once one takes a pen and writes? How difficult not to go making “reality” this and that, whereas it is one thing. Now perhaps this is my gift: this perhaps is what distinguishes me from other people: I think it may be rare to have so acute a sense of something like that — but again, who knows? I would like to express it too.

Art by Nina Cosford from the illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf

The following fall, thirteen days before the publication of A Room of One’s Own — that ultimate paean to the relationship between loneliness and creative vitality — Woolf revisits the subject in her diary, contemplating the strange ways in which we deny or confer validity upon our loneliness. Loneliness, after all, is an interior chill independent of externalities and often thrives precisely when our circumstances appear most enviable to the outside world — a warping of reality that is itself intensely, almost unbearably real. Woolf writes:

These October days are to me a little strained and surrounded with silence. What I mean by this last word I don’t quite know, since I have never stopped “seeing” people… No, it’s not physical silence; it’s some inner loneliness.

And yet for Woolf, this lonely silence is inseparable from the creative impulse. Half a century before Adrienne Rich asserted that “the impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” Woolf illustrates this nuanced feeling with a lived example:

I was walking up Bedford Place is it — the straight street with all the boarding houses this afternoon — and I said to myself spontaneously, something like this. How I suffer. And no one knows how I suffer, walking up this street, engaged with my anguish, as I was after Thoby [Woolf’s brother] died — alone; fighting something alone. But then I had the devil to fight, and now nothing. And when I come indoors it is all so silent — I am not carrying a great rush of wheels in my head — yet I am writing… And it is autumn; and the lights are going up… and this celebrity business is quite chronic — and I am richer than I have ever been — and bought a pair of earrings today — and for all this, there is vacancy and silence somewhere in the machine. On the whole, I do not much mind; because what I like is to flash and dash from side to side, goaded on by what I call reality. If I never felt these extraordinarily pervasive strains — of unrest or rest or happiness or discomfort — I should float down into acquiescence. Here is something to fight; and when I wake early I say to myself Fight, fight. If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world… Anything is possible. And this curious steed, life, is genuine. Does any of this convey what I want to say? But I have not really laid hands on the emptiness after all.

A Writer’s Diary remains one of the most psychologically insightful and beautifully crafted packets of human thought and feeling ever bound between two covers. Complement this particular portion with Sara Maitland on how to be alone without being lonely and David Whyte on the transfiguration of aloneness, then revisit Woolf on why the most fertile mind is the androgynous mind and her electrifying account of the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.

BP

Lou Andreas-Salomé, the First Woman Psychoanalyst, on Depression and Creativity in Letters to Rilke

“A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs.”

Lou Andreas-Salomé, the First Woman Psychoanalyst, on Depression and Creativity in Letters to Rilke

A woman of extraordinary intellectual and creative potency, the Russian-born writer Lou Andreas-Salomé (February 12, 1861–February 5, 1937) became a muse to some of Europe’s most celebrated thinkers, including Nietzsche, whose masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra was largely inspired by her. Already an established poet and philosopher by the age of fifty, she trained with Freud and became the world’s first woman psychoanalyst. But perhaps the most significant relationship of her life was with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who became besotted with her in his youth, wrote her exquisite love letters, and dedicated his Book of Hours to her.

Like Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, the two remained lifelong friends and intellectual peers after their romance ended. Andreas-Salomé was Rilke’s most trusted confidante and, in many ways, his greatest influence.

Particularly beautiful was their intimacy around the trials and triumphs of the creative spirit, revealed over and over in Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters (public library) — the record of their decades-long, deeply poetic correspondence, which also gave us Andreas-Salomé on the relationship between the mind and the body.

In a letter from the summer of 1914, Rilke confides in her about his exponentially exasperating struggle with depression and creative block. He captures the overwhelming and vulnerable-making emotional porousness that makes us feel completely devoid of control over the anguishing invasiveness with which the world enters us:

I am like the little anemone I once saw in the garden in Rome; it had opened so wide during the day that it could no longer close at night. It was terrible to see it in the dark lawn, wide open, still taking in through its calyx, which seemed as if frantically flung open beneath an all-overpowering night that streamed down on it undiminished… My senses, without asking me, attach themselves to anything intrusive, whenever there’s a noise I give myself up to it and am that noise, and since everything, once it has been set for stimuli, wants to be set off by stimuli, so at heart I want to be disturbed and am so without end. From such exposure to an existence in public, some sort of life inside me has taken refuge, has retreated to an innermost place and lives there the way people live during a siege, in deprivation and perpetual worry… And in between, between this uninterrupted outward-addiction and that interior existence I can barely reach any longer, are the true dwelling-places of healthful feeling: empty, abandoned, cleared out, an inhospitable middle zone whose neutrality also explains why all the kindnesses of people and nature are wasted on me.

Anemone flower
Anemone flower

But in her response, Lou Andreas-Salomé offers some counterintuitive yet tremendously insightful consolation — the emotional porousness that makes for such despairing vulnerability, she argues, is also the wellspring of creative self-expression, as evidenced by Rilke’s exquisite articulation of his very anguish. She writes:

While you are perpetually feeling sick and miserable you are also perpetually finding expressions for that experience, and those expressions, in the distinctive form you give them, would be quite impossible unless somewhere inside you there is a flowing together, an experiencing in unison, of what you feel as so torn into one impulse fleeing outward and another burrowing inward, with only an empty, self-deserted middle space between them. Those words with which you articulate this condition, and that passage, for example, about the anemone — they are nothing if not works, works accomplished, the coming about of deepest unities in you!

In a sentiment that Anaïs Nin would come to echo thirty years later in her beautiful meditation on why emotional excess is essential for creativity, Andreas-Salomé adds:

A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs, certainly; but if it arose out of that despair, the despair of not being capable of just such poetic syntheses, there’d be a contradiction, don’t you think? To your consciousness of yourself it appears that way, your consciousness finds itself on the side of what is being blocked, and therefore is not party to those moments which show again and again that you are not so lacking throughout in unity as you feel and think “yourself” to be; you suffer yourself as a person blocked, and that piece of happiness which is lodged in this situation remains hidden from you, withheld, even though all its requirements are inside you and express themselves; for one cannot write about the anemone the way you do without some store of happiness (which is just not fully working its way into consciousness!)

Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block

At the heart of her consolation is the notion that creative block is evidence of creativity rather than of its absence. She writes:

This may not factually change anything, since one has nothing of that which eludes one’s feeling and thoughts; yet proof that it is real and is present remains important, — somewhat the way an insensate limb does not stir the same terror as an amputated one: the paralysis may be connected with processes that can at any moment resolve, and that do not block the flow of food and nourishment, etc.

Complement this particular portion of the immeasurably beautiful and poetic Rilke and Andreas-Salomé: A Love Story in Letters with Lewis Carroll’s three tips for overcoming creative block, Brian Eno’s oblique strategies, and some advice from successful contemporary artists, then revisit Rilke on the soul-expanding value of difficulty, our fear of the unexplainable, and what books do for our inner lives.

BP

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.

BP

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