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Saturday, April 02, 2011

John Steinbeck's "Journal of a Novel" Brilliant Bantering

There are reasons why some of the "not for publication" things authors leave behind are better left, well, unpublished.  The publication of "True at First Light" by Ernest Hemingway in 1999 is such an example of what I mean.  I believe it is the only book of Hemingway's I had to put down and not ever pick up again.  I submit as another example of this phenomenon "Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters," by John Steinbeck.  The volume contains letters the author wrote to his editor and friend Pascal Covici.  The idea came to Steinbeck as he began on January 29, 1951 to sketch his next novel, "East of Eden."  He had a notebook and while using one side of the notebook for sketches of plots for the novel, in the opposite page he would pen a letter to his friend about the novel and about just every topic under the sky.  Steinbeck refers to the letters as if he were "getting [his] mental arm in shape to pitch a good game."  

I had great difficulty getting into the letters/journal style of this book.  The task of writing these letters seemed (at the risk of being sacrilegious) tedious to me.  Of course I understand the premise, but the content of these letters deal very little with the novel and the process of sketching the plots and characters.  On the contrary, they are filled with ramblings dealing with everything about worries over his oldest son, Tom, to venomous criticism of General Douglas McArthur.  There's also quite a bit about Steinbeck's fondness for wood works and inventions.  The rest seemed to be hard to relate to and lacking the engaging power of good journal narratives.

There were, however, a couple of spots I had to laugh at because the amount of detail that goes into making a writer (the little things) were present in this book to the extent that the reader might be tempted to think, "well, at least I am not the only one who is this crazy."  Here's a couple of passages where Steinbeck writes about his preference for specific pencils.

"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 no 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 2 3/8.  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.... Pencils are a great expense to me and I hope you know it.  I buy them four dozen at a time.... My pencils are very short now and I think I will celebrate by getting out twelve new pencils.  Sometimes the just pure luxury of long beautiful pencils charges me with energy and invention.  We shall see.  It means I will have to have more pencils before long though.  Would you send me another box?  They are Mongol 480 #2 3/8 F round."

This long passage helps me remember something I read in a Natalie Goldberg book ("Writing Down the Bones") about buying expensive notebooks or pens, etc.  If that's what's going to get you to actually write, then do it.  If one develops some sort of attachment to a specific pen and/or notebook, so much the better.  I know I am guilty (excessively so) of such pleasures.  People don't understand why I do it... but at least I have Steinbeck in my corner of "eccentric" traits.  We all have our private peccadilloes--embrace them before it is too late.

The research work I am doing is going well.  I have little time to work at home and much less at the office.  Nevertheless, the amount of information and things I've learned for the first time is truly wonderful.  I am enjoying it very much.

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