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