EDITOR’S NOTE: John Steinbeck had agreed to a Paris Review interview late in his life. He had earlier been coy about it, but then wanted the interview very much. He was, unfortunately, too sick to work on the project, though it was at the end often in his thoughts.With this interest of his in mind, the editors of this magazine compiled a number of comments on the Art of Fiction that John Steinbeck made over the years. The majority of them come from the East of Eden diaries, published in December 1969 by The Viking Press under the title Journey of a Novel. The quotes have been organized under various topic headings rather than chronologically, as they are in the diaries. Nathaniel Benchley, a close friend of the author, has provided the introduction.
By rights this preface or introduction or whatever it is should be called “Compliments of a Friend,” because I have neither the perspective nor the desire to offer up a critique of John Steinbeck’s writing, even if anyone would listen. Furthermore nobody has asked me to, so we’re all that much better off. I knew him, and I know a little bit of what he thought about writing, and that will be my contribution.
He once said that to write well about something you had to either love it or hate it very much, and that in a sense was a mirror of his own personality. Things were either black or white, and although he might change his basic position (as he eventually did about the Vietnam war), if you were on his side you could do no wrong and if you were agin him you could do no right. It wasn’t as simplistic as that may make it sound, but there were very few gray areas where he was concerned. And when he wrote, you certainly knew whose side he was on. You hoped it was yours.
Long ago, he was quoted as saying that genius was a little boy chasing a butterfly up a mountain. He later insisted that what he’d really said was that it was a butterfly chasing a little boy up a mountain (or a mountain chasing a butterfly up a little boy; I’ve forgotten which) and I think in some ways he was haunted by having caught his butterfly so early in the game. He never said this in so many words (to me, at any rate), but his fierce dedication to his writing, and his conviction that every word he put down was the best he could find, were signs of a man who dreaded ever having it said that he was slipping, or that he hadn’t given it his best. One time, at the behest of a son of mine at Exeter, he wrote a few paragraphs for the 76th anniversary edition of The Exonian; he called it “In Awe of Words,” and with the permission of the management I’ll reproduce it here, because as usual he says these things better for himself.
A man who writes a story is forced to put into it the best of his knowledge and the best of his feeling.
The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty. A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator. Of course, there are dishonest writers who go on for a little while, but not for long—not for long.
A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all 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.” Of course a writer rearranges life, shortens time intervals, sharpens events, and devises beginnings, middles and ends. We do have curtains—in a day, morning, noon and night, in a man, birth, growth and death.
These are curtain rise and curtain fall, but the story goes on and nothing finishes.
To finish is sadness to a writer—a little death. He puts the last word down and it is done. But it isn’t really done. The story goes on and leaves the writer behind, for no story is ever done.
Reading through his obituaries, I found a good deal of analytical writing about his work, and one rewrite man ventured the personal note that he was considered shy, but nowhere did I see a word about one of the most glorious facets of his character, which was his humor. All good humor defies analysis (E. B. White likened it to a frog, which dies under dissection) and John’s defied it more than most, because it was not gag-type humor but was the result of his wildly imaginative mind, his remarkable store of knowledge, and his precision with words. This respect for, and precision with, words led him to avoid almost every form of profanity; where most people would let their rage spill out the threadbare obscenities, he would concoct some diatribe that let off the steam and was at the same time mildly diverting. One example should suffice: At Easter about three years ago we were visiting the Steinbecks at Sag Harbor, and John and I arose before the ladies to make breakfast. He hummed and puttered about the kitchen with the air of a man who was inventing a new form of toaster, and suddenly the coffee pot boiled over, sending torrents of coffee grounds over the stove and clouds of vapor into the air. John leaped for the switch, shouting, “Nuts/!No wonder I’m a failure! No wonder nobody ever asks for my hand in marriage! Nuts!” By that time both he and the coffee had simmered down, and he started a new pot. I think that this was the day he stoutly denied having a hangover, and after a moment of reflection added, “Of course, I do have a headache that starts at the base of my spine...“ He spent the rest of the morning painting an Easter egg black, as a protest.
There was, oddly, a lot of little boy left in him, if by little boy you can mean a searching interest in anything new, a desire to do or to find or to invent some sort of diversion, a fascination with any gadget of any sort whatsoever, and the ability to be entertained by comparative trivia. He was the only adult I have ever seen who would regularly laugh at the Sunday comics; he raised absolute hell in our kitchen with an idea for making papier-mâché in the Waring blender with a combination of newspaper and water and flour; and he would conduct frequent trips to the neighborhood toy store, sometimes just to browse through the stock and sometimes to buy an item like a cap pistol as a Valentine’s Day present for his wife. To be with him was to be on a constant parranda, either actual or intellectual, and the only person bewildered by it was his children’s nurse, who once said, “I don’t see why Mr. Steinbeck and Mr. Benchley go out to those bars, when there’s all that free liquor at home.” And late at night, over some of the “free” liquor at home, he would sometimes read Synge’s translations of Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura, and then he would weep. It wasn’t the liquor; it was the lilt of Synge’s words and the ache in Petrarch’s heart, and there was one of the sonnets that I never once heard him read through to the end.
You know on my left hand on the pad just below the little finger, I have a dark brown spot. And on my left foot in a corresponding place I have another one almost the same. One time a Chinese, seeing the spot on my hand, became very much excited and when I told him about the one on my foot he was keenly interested. He said that in Chinese palmistry the hand spot was a sign of the greatest possible good luck and the one on my foot doubled it. These spots are nothing but a dark pigmentation. I’ve had them from birth. Indeed, they are what is known as birthmarks. But the reason I brought it up is this. For the last year and a half, they have been getting darker. And if I am to believe in my spots, this must mean that the luck is getting better. And sure enough I have Elaine [Mrs. John Steinbeck] and what better luck could there be. But the spots continue to darken and maybe that means that I am going to have a book, too. And that would be great good luck, too.
ON WORK HABITS
Mark Twain used to write in bed—so did our greatest poet1. But I wonder how often they wrote in bed—or whether they did it twice and the story took hold. Such things happen. Also I would like to know what things they wrote in bed and what tilings they wrote sitting up. All of this has to do with comfort in writing and what its value is. I should think that a comfortable body would let the mind go freely to its gathering.
You know I always smoke a pipe when I work—at least I used to and now I have taken it up again. It is strange—as soon as a pipe begins to taste good, cigarettes become tasteless. I find I smoke fewer and fewer cigarettes. Maybe I can cut them out entirely for a while. This would be a very good thing. Even with this little change, my deep-seated and perennial cigarette cough is going away. A few months without that would be a real relief.
The pipes are tasting very good. I have a feeling to buy a meerschaum and start coloring it as I do this book. Maybe I will do that. By the time the pipe is brown the book should be done. More magics. I think tomorrow I will look for a meerschaum, a small light one. Saw one in a window the other day but I forget where.
I have dawdled away a good part of my free time now carving vaguely on a scrap of mahogany, but I guess I have been thinking too. Who knows. I sit here in a kind of a stupor and call it thought.
Now I have taken the black off my desk again, clear down to the wood, and have put a green blotter down. I am never satisfied with my writing surface.
My choice of pencils lies between the black Calculator stolen from Fox Films and this Mongol 2 3/8 F which is quite black and holds its point well—much better in fact than the Fox pencils. I will get six more or maybe four more dozen of them for my pencil tray.
I have found a new kind of pencil—the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too but it is black and soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper.
You know I am really stupid. For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is all right some days is not good another day. For example, yesterday, I used a special pencil soft and fine and it floated over the paper just wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper. So today I need a harder pencil at least for a while. I am using some that are numbered 23. I have my plastic tray you know and in it three kinds of pencils for hard writing days and soft writing days. Only sometimes it changes in the middle of the day, but at least I am equipped for it. I have also some super soft pencils which I do not use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them. And I am not often that way. But when I do have such moments I am prepared. It is always well to be prepared. Pencils are a great expense to me and I hope you know it. I buy them four dozen at a time. When in my normal writing position the metal of the pencil eraser touches my hand, I retire that pencil. Then Tom and Catbird get them. And they need pencils. They need lots of pencils. Then I have this kind of pencil and it is too soft. Whenever you see a thing like that • die point broke. I have fine prejudices, lazy ones and enjoyable ones. It occurs to me that everyone likes or wants to be an eccentric and this is my eccentricity, my pencil trifling. It isn’t a very harmful one. Maybe I have others which are more. The electric pencil sharpener may seem a needless expense and yet I have never had anything that I used more and was more help to me. To sharpen the number of pencils I use every day, I don’t know how many but at least sixty, by a hand sharpener would not only take too long but would tire my hand out. I like to sharpen them all at once and then I never have to do it again that day. So, you will say, I have wasted enough time for one day but I have managed to do something else too. I have lost the sense of rush with which I started this and that is exactly what I intended to do.