John Steinbeck

I remember reading a book a few years ago, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten. I’ve always been inspired by reading biographical material and this book was a powerful and influential read for me. At 860 pages (not counting the appendix), it is a formidable book to attack. From the reading, I learned much about Steinbeck. I learned he hated the telephone, and that for him, “letter-writing was a preparation for work” and a way to express his thoughts on people “he liked and hated; on marriage, women, and children, on the condition of the world, and on his progress in learning his craft.”

I had always admired Stenbeck’s writing, though I was a late bloomer in the reading of his work. Looking at the book, I see the lines I underlined and I wished I had memorized them. A line from the preface sums the book up well: “[I]t is the record of a man learning his craft.”

I did learn much about what it meant to be a writer, and I identified with Steinbeck in many ways. I was much impressed with the honesty of the letters. For example, when he was having his affair with Elaine Anderson (Scott) who would later become his wife until his death, he wrote her these words in a letter: “I’m not afraid of anything now. And surely I won’t force anything and surely I’ll let it go on happening. And I know it will work out. I’m sure of it. Completely sure.”

And it did work out between them. Steinbeck wrote books that changed America. Every time I pick up a pencil, I think of his ritual of sharpening two dozen or so (some say up to 60) in the morning to write with, and I think of how great a writer he was, and of how far I have to go. I’ve taught Steinbeck in the past to high school students, allowed him as a choice for research papers for my college students, and those that have read him are always affected. Several of his books are still on my list to read.

I’ll end this post with another quote of Steinbeck on writing. Dennis Murphy was in the middle of a book and having some difficulty finishing. Steinbeck said: “You must finish this book, then you must finish another. If anything at all, saving your own death stops you, except momentarily, then you are not a writer anyway . . .”