The John Steinbeck Primer for Writers

Caleb Pirtle III combs through the words of John Steinbeck to find guidelines he left behind for writers and authors.

John Steinbeck had written words, scrambled words, rearranged words, sorted through words, and threw away pages full of words. He had been writing a novel, and the more words he threw into the manuscript, the less he liked it. The plot didn’t work. He had never been able to get a proper handle on the characters. The story had wandered off in some wayward direction where he had no intention of going.

John Steinbeck

He sat down and wrote a friend. He said: “You see this book is finished, and it is a bad book, and I must get rid of it. It can’t be printed. It is bad because it isn’t honest. Oh! The incidents happened but – I’m not telling as much of the truth about them as I know. In satire, you have to restrict the picture, and I just can’t do satire. I’ve written three books now that were dishonest because they were less than the best that I could do. One you never saw because I burned it the day I finished it. My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other, and then I deliberately write this book, the aim of which is to cause hatred through partial understanding. My father would have called it a smart-aleck book. It was full of tricks to make people ridiculous. If I can’t do better, I have slipped badly.  And that I won’t admit – yet.”

Steinbeck was disappointed with the story and the book. He was disappointed with himself. He wondered just how far he had really slipped. Steinbeck shoved the manuscript out of sight and out of mind. With any luck, he thought, it would never see the light of day. It didn’t.

And he began again. Somewhere deep inside of him he had another story to tell. And he would tell it as honestly as he knew how. In the midst of total despair, John Steinbeck took a deep breath and wrote down the first words to Grapes of Wrath.

It would win for him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Of course, Grapes of Wrath was banned by the Kern County Board of Supervisors in 1939, burned on two different occasions in his hometown of Salinas, California, and banned by a school board in Mississippi on the grounds of possessing just a little too much profanity. It was a profane time. In fact, Steinbeck would become one of the ten most frequently banned authors in the nation.  Of Mice and Men has been recognized as one of the ten most frequently read books in publish high schools, and, at the same time, it ranks number six in the hundred most banned books in the United States.

A scene from the movie, "Grapes of Wrath," starring Henry Fonda

John Steinbeck would forever find his greatest success by standing up for the poor, the defenseless, the hopeless, the man down on his luck, the woman who had never had any luck, the American underdog. He knew them well. Steinbeck believed he was one of them.

He once wrote: “Boileau said that Kings, Gods, and Heroes only were fit subjects for literature. The writer can only write about what he admires. Present-day kings aren’t very inspiring, the gods are on vacation, and about the only heroes left are the scientists and the poor. And since our race admires gallantry, the writer will deal with it where he finds it. He finds it in the struggling poor right now.”

Steinbeck understood hard work and poverty. He had been a common day laborer in a sugar factory and in the mills of California. He had been employed as a ranch hand. He had worked the fields with migrant workers, and he knew well how dispossessed families were being crushed and left at the mercy of the Great Depression. His experiences lent a measure of authenticity to the characters and stories in his novels. He once admitted, “The Great Depression didn’t bother me. I had been practicing for it ten years before it got here.”

Steinbeck wrote about the plight of the common man in such novels as Tortilla Flats, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men. As he said, “The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit; for the gallantry in defeat, the courage, compassion, and love In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the rally flags of hope and emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”

Steinbeck provided writers with such guidelines as:

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.

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.

John Steinbeck receiving the Nobel Prize

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.

If a scene or 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 you trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

If you are using dialogue – say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.

A book is like a man – clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering though, there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight, a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.

The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules.

We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story, begging the listener to say – and to feel – “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.

Writers are a little below clowns and a little above trained seals.

The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.

In utter loneliness, a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death.

Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.

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 be 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 make a good story good or the errors that make a ad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

And most of all, John Steinbeck, believed these words, which are good for all authors to remember, “Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard.”


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