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John Steinbeck and the Supportive, Stabilizing Relationship Between Discipline and Creativity

John Steinbeck

“The whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language.”

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There often circulates in advice articles (behold those on this very site!) a perfidious notion that creativity rewards those who are the most relaxed, the most open to concept, and those who waft about in some non-self state. And we must get into this state, or we will peril. Although a relaxed mind can certainly usher in moments of thought, enlightenment, and awareness that transform one’s consciousness and, thus, one’s work, the actual creating—words on a page, work in a studio, nay, even a garden—is a deliberate, focused, and relentless process.

Art is the stuff of work, not dreams.

Never has this been illustrated so deeply and personally as in John Steinbeck’s daily journal—he called it his work diary—kept during his tremendously productive period from June to October 1938, during which he wrote every day and eventually produced the first copy, 619 handwritten pages, of his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. The replete and glorious publication of this journal is found in Working Days: The Journals of Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck empowered the journal to keep score of his productivity and discipline, and, in return, it kept him engaged and focused:

June 8, 1938 – This is the longest diary I ever kept. Not a diary of course but an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel. If a day is skipped it will show glaringly on this record and there will be some reason given for the skip.

By the time he began the work, Steinbeck had already thoroughly researched migrant camps, written several successful articles and essays (including “The Harvest Gypsies”), and spent countless hours in the camps themselves, specifically near Visalia, a town in Central California Steinbeck visited and, during a devastating flood, assisted. A scene he brutally redrew in Grapes. Steinbeck thoroughly believed in the plight of migrant workers and seized his role in documenting it in fiction. Although he withheld his own persona from the tone and characters in his novel, his journal entries project a hauntingly prescient awareness of the magnitude of the task he was to undertake.

June 10, 1938 – This must be a good book. It simply must. I haven’t any choice. It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted, slow but sure. Piling detail on detail until a picture and experience emerge.

Less certain, however, was Steinbeck of his own talent and ability to conceive and execute this eventual work. Indeed, his self-doubt absorbs more than half of the journal. As the novel marches forward, Steinbeck becomes increasingly distressed, admitting to a level of paranoia about his ability to hold fast to the discipline. Words such as lazy, chaos, turmoil, slipping, frantic, and demoralizing creep into the text. By August, he was slipping into a panic of doubt and frenzy, brought on by the outside world’s demands and the astounding energy and concentration this great work demanded:

August 1, 1938 – Hope to lose some of the frantic quality in my mind now… Panic sets in. Can’t organize. And everybody is taking a crack at me. Want time, want to use me. In aggregate it is terrible and I don’t know where to run… Got to calm down. Simply must. I’m jumpy. God it’s hot.

The novel itself, however, he seldom speaks of in detail, other than note functional necessities such as teasing out scenes, adding detail, incident, sketching characters true and hoping “this book isn’t suffering from all the inroads of other things.” A plodding methodical method of not just using the work diary as a check on his imagined laziness but as a place where he could dump and ignore his overwrought sentiment.

August 23, 1938 – I am fresh again and that is good. My brain is clear for details. Can almost finish in one piece should I think. I want to. I shouldn’t be thinking about getting done. Should be thinking only of the story and, by God, I will.

Although his courage fluctuated, Steinbeck always, repeatedly, found his words and rhythm in the discipline that daily writing provided. He clung to the belief that writing begot writing, that the creative process is not something to be found or bestowed but, rather, created if returned to faithfully, with discipline.

October 6, 1938 – Today I shall work slowly and try to get that good feeling again. It must be. Just a little bit every day. A little bit every day.

Critics have noted that Steinbeck’s personal struggle to write The Grapes of Wrath—a long, hard journey of relentless sameness day after day—mimicked the Joad’s journey across the U.S. from the dust of nothingness to the green California lands of hope and opportunity, a sort of Elysium.

But as readers know, the Joad’s, as was true for the families they represented, traveled through Hell, only to end up in Hell. Opportunity was crushed under powerful landowners, and migrants were relegated to impoverished camps and inhumane conditions.

Steinbeck’s psychological journey and outcome aren’t entirely dissimilar, though he couldn’t have known it at the time. He revisits the Journal a year after Grapes was published, after the dissolution of his marriage from Carol, the woman to whom he dedicated the book, a bit adrift with a loss of purpose and further grounded down by people wanting things from him.

July 24, 1940 – I have the old fear of beginning work that I have always felt. The terror that could not bring it off. Of course, the main difficulty lies in the fact that between books I soften up both in literary and intellectual discipline, so that with each beginning I must fight soft muscles in the head and in the technique. Naturally, I am frightened.

The experience of writing, and living through the success of Grapes of Wrath, forever changed Steinbeck as a person and as a novelist. How fortunate we are to see the real drama unfold from his very pen, on these very pages.
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See also John Steinbeck’s notes during his period writing East of Eden published in Journey of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. East of Eden was his subsequent substantive work completed twelve years after the publication of Grapes of Wrath. Unlike Grapes, it is less a narrative of a man, a family, a country, and significantly the narrative of the author. In my own experience, layering structure and discipline on the creative process is not only rewarding, it is essential. To read more about the necessity of artistic community, read Anna Deveare Smith’s thoughts on a connected, supported creative life.
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