Recently I had the idea of starting a blog about reading, and its importance. I now have two blogs. They are Write to Life and Read to Death. Since these represent the two key components of The Pencil Driven Life, I obviously intend a sort of symmetry: life vs. death. But, death of what?
Here’s my answer in short:
I encourage you to read to death. This isn’t like running yourself to death; it’s more like running to kill something else. By running, I mean reading. Read–fiction and nonfiction– until you’ve put to death your false opinions and beliefs. If you keep at it, keep reading widely and deeply, you’ll replace your wrong-headedness with the truth.
“If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.”
While the book deals with the entire ecosystem of the writing process — from choosing a topic to conducting research to planning and revision — in one particularly potent section, Eco offers his most direct advice on the writing itself. After making a general case for the value of rewriting, he offers a number of specific pointers:
You are not Proust. Do not write long sentences. If they come into your head, write them, but then break them down. Do not be afraid to repeat the subject twice, and stay away from too many pronouns and subordinate clauses.
You are not e. e. cummings. Cummings was an American avant-garde poet who is known for having signed his name with lower-case initials. Naturally he used commas and periods with great thriftiness, he broke his lines into small pieces, and in short he did all the things that an avant-garde poet can and should do. But you are not an avant-garde poet. Not even if your thesis is on avant-garde poetry.
The pseudo-poet who writes his thesis in poetry is a pitiful writer (and probably a bad poet). From Dante to Eliot and from Eliot to Sanguineti, when avant-garde poets wanted to talk about their poetry, they wrote in clear prose.
With his signature blunt wisdom — a hard-earned bluntness — he adds:
Are you a poet? Then do not pursue a university degree.
Despite admonishing against breaking up lines in the style of the avant-garde poets, Eco does urge writers to break their prose into digestible segments:
Begin new paragraphs often. Do so when logically necessary, and when the pace of the text requires it, but the more you do it, the better.
In another point of advice, he could have easily titled “You are not Hemingway,” Eco encourages students to seek feedback from their mentors and cautions:
Do not play the solitary genius.
Do not use ellipsis and exclamation points, and do not explain ironies. It is possible to use language that is referential or language that is figurative. By referential language, I mean a language that is recognized by all, in which all things are called by their most common name, and that does not lend itself to misunderstandings.
We either use rhetorical figures effectively, or we do not use them at all. If we use them it is because we presume our reader is capable of catching them, and because we believe that we will appear more incisive and convincing. In this case, we should not be ashamed of them, and we should not explain them. If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.
Given my distaste for writers who use italics and exclamation points for emphasis — a way of falling back on font styling and punctuation as the lazy substitute for prose that makes a point — I was particularly delighted by Eco’s admonition against one of the key “bad habits of the amateur writer”:
[Avoid] the exclamation point to emphasize a statement. This is not appropriate in a critical essay… It is allowed once or twice, if the purpose is to make the reader jump in his seat and call his attention to a vehement statement like, “Pay attention, never make this mistake!” But it is a good rule to speak softly. The effect will be stronger if you simply say important things.
In this short video from the same Louisiana Museum of Modern Art series that gave us Patti Smith’s advice to the young, Eco offers a higher-order — and perhaps the most important — piece of wisdom to aspiring writers:
“The ability to forgive oneself … is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her lucid and luminous essay on where ideas come from and the “secret” of writing. “But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.” And yet our cultural mythology continues to perpetuate the perilous notion that great art is the product of great ideas that occur in a flash to those endowed with the mysterious gift of genius.
The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns. We serve them, and in return they thrive. It isn’t their responsibility to figure out where the rent is coming from.
Patchett, who knew she wanted to be a writer since her early childhood — “A deep, early love of poetry should be mandatory for all writers,” she asserts in one of her many piercing asides — first set out to figure this out by taking a number of freelance assignments for various magazines, writing essays and other nonfiction while dreaming with crystalline determination about being a novelist. She reflects on a curious duality — on the one hand, the fundamental differences between writing fiction and writing nonfiction; on the other, the surprising ways in which the craft of the latter recompenses the art of the former:
In my mind, fiction and nonfiction stayed so far away from each other that for years I would have maintained they had no more a relationship than fiction and waitressing. Writing a novel, even when it’s going smoothly, is hard for me, and writing an article, even a challenging one, is easy. I believe nonfiction is easy for me precisely because fiction is hard; I would always rather knock off an essay than face down the next chapter of my novel. But I’ve come to realize that while all those years of writing fiction had improved my craft as a writer across the board, all those years of writing articles … had made me a workhorse, and that, in turn, was a skill I brought back to my novels.
But of all the skills essential to the fiction writer that Patchett acquired while writing nonfiction — from having her ego tamed by the constant practice of seeing her sentences slaughtered by editors to mastering “the ability to fake authority” — perhaps most valuable was the unshakable understanding that the chief purpose of writing, whatever its nature or genre, is to serve for people as Neruda unforgettable “hand through the fence.” Patchett recounts:
In the years I made my living writing nonfiction, I thought of the work I did as being temporary, with a life span that would, in most cases, not exceed a magazine’s last tattered days in a dentist’s waiting room, but the essays kept resurfacing. People would bring them to book signings and show them to me. I read this when my grandmother died. Someone gave this to me when I got divorced. They told me my story was their story, and they wondered if there was more, something they might have missed… The job of these essays had been to support art, not to be art, but maybe that was what spared them from self-consciousness.
In one of the most illuminating pieces from the book, titled “The Getaway Car” and subtitled “A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life,” Patchett considers how this writerly self-consciousness dances with our cultural narrative about great ideas being all it takes to produce great art:
Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it out into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it. Look at what we already have going for us: some level of education, which has given us control of written and spoken language; the ability to use a computer or a pencil; and an imagination that naturally turns the events of our lives into stories that are both true and false. We all have ideas, sometimes good ones, not to mention the gift of emotional turmoil that every childhood provides. In short, the story is in us, and all we have to do is sit there and write it down.
But it’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart.
If a person has never given writing a try, they assume that a brilliant idea is hard to come by. But really, even if it takes some digging, ideas are out there. Just open your eyes and look at the world. Writing the ideas down, it turns out, is the real trick.
She illustrates the disconnect between myth and reality by recounting an exasperating, almost absurdist encounter with a woman — not a writer — who claimed that while not everyone has in them “one algebraic proof” or “one five-minute mile,” everyone has “one great novel” tucked into their inner life, waiting to be externalized in writing. Patchett — a writer, and thus a rightfully indignant unbeliever in this strangely selective assertion — voices her incredulity:
I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, not later that same day, not five years later. Was it possible that, in everybody’s lymph system, a nascent novel is knocking around? A few errant cells that, if given the proper encouragement, cigarettes and gin, the requisite number of bad affairs, could turn into something serious? Living a life is not the same as writing a book, and it got me thinking about the relationship between what we know and what we can put on paper.
Living up to the book’s central disclaimer that it isn’t “an instructional booklet” but a subjective record of what has worked for her, Patchett echoes Tchaikovsky’s account of the “immense bliss” of ideation and relays her own experience:
For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head (there will be more about this later). This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.
Only writers, Patchett argues, bend but don’t break under this crushing dissatisfaction with how the gossamer perfection of the idea withers as it metamorphoses into the reality of the execution — and that is what sets them apart from those other people who die with their One Great Novel unwritten:
The journey from the head to hand is perilous and lined with bodies. It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write — and many of the people who do write — get lost… Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.
And yet that resilience isn’t something arbitrarily bestowed upon the lucky few by a fickle muse — rather, it is earned the only way any stamina is ever earned. (Annie Dillard, perhaps our most benevolent patron saint of writing, put it best: “You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.”) In a sentiment that calls to mind the exquisite example of how John Steinbeck disciplined his way to a Pulitzer, Patchett observes:
It turns out that the distance from head to hand, from wafting butterfly to entomological specimen, is achieved through regular practice. What begins as something like a dream will in fact stay a dream forever unless you have the tools and the discipline to bring it out.
Patchett pokes at the strange logic by which we exempt writing from the beliefs and standards to which we hold other crafts:
Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and that there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, “I’ll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!” you would pity their delusion, yet beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker. Perhaps you’re thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art itself but an interpretation of the composer’s art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.
Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well, yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we’re more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound; not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself… I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art.
Returning to the question of transmuting inspiration into writing — one also addressed by another celebrated writer whose own relationship to butterflies was far from metaphorical — Patchett adds:
I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.
In this practice lies Patchett’s most empowering yet most difficult piece of advice:
Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.
I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.
Long before Wild — her magnificent memoir of learning, oh, just about every dimension of the art of living while hiking more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail — was turned into a major motion picture, Strayed wielded her art as an advice columnist for The Rumpus, simply known as Sugar. Among the thousands of Dear Sugar letters she received was one from a self-described “pathetic and confused young woman of twenty-six” named Elissa Bassist, a “writer who can’t write,” a “high-functioning head case, one who jokes enough that most people don’t know the truth.” “The truth,” she tells Sugar, “[is that] I am sick with panic that I cannot — will not — override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness.”
What makes Strayed’s advice so vitalizing is that it is never dispensed as a holier-than-thou dictum; rather, it weaves tapestry of no-bullshit solace from the beautifully tattered threads of her own experience, messy and alive. This is exactly what she hands to Bassist, under the title “Write Like a Motherfucker.”
Invoking the time right before she wrote her first book, when she too was a twenty-something writer plagued by the same fear that she was “lazy and lame,” Strayed recounts how she “finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked”; in other words, she got off the nail. With an eye to Flannery O’Connor’s famous proclamation that “The first product of self-knowledge is humility,” which Strayed had inscribed across the chalkboard in her living room at the time, she writes:
When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote… And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.
Do you know what that is, sweat pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned thirty-five a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.
I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely nowhere-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.
Strayed directs her tough-love incisiveness at Bassist’s paradoxical blend of self-pitying defeatism and grandiose entitlement — something not uncommon in young artists, who forget that “anything worthwhile takes a long time,” and a kernel of truth in the otherwise overly flat and ungenerously applied cultural archetype of the millennial:
Buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes you should be successful at twenty-six, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there… You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done. We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce.
In spite of various mythologies regarding artists and how psychologically fragile we are, the fact is that occupation is not a top predictor for suicide. Yes, we can rattle off a list of women writers who’ve killed themselves and yes, we may conjecture that their status as women in the societies in which they lived contributed to the depressive and desperate state that caused them to do so. But it isn’t the unifying theme.
You know what is?
How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured.
The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you—,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us — straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.
So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.
In this excerpt from her altogether fantastic 2012 conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber, with Bassist in the audience, Strayed elaborates on the art of motherfuckitude:
But being a motherfucker, it’s a way of life, really… It’s about having strength rather than fragility, resilience, and faith, and nerve, and really leaning hard into work rather than worry and anxiety.
I think there are a lot of writers who can’t write, or they think they can’t write… I understand that feeling, I think every writer has wrestled with those anxieties and that self-loathing, and yet ultimately in order to succeed in anything we all have to in essence embrace humility, rather.
A lot of people think that to be a motherfucker is to be a person who is the dominant figure. But I actually think that true motherfuckerhood … really has to do with being humble. And it’s only when you can get out of your own ego that you can actually do what is necessary to do — in a relationship, in your professional life, as a parent, in any of those ways. It has to do with humility — doing the work.
Consolation for those moments when you can’t tell whether you’re “the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“Bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt,” Charles Bukowski lamented in an interview. Self-doubt is a familiar state for all who put pieces of their inner lives into the outside world — that is, for all artists. “Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical,” Anna Deavere Smith counseled in her indispensable Letters to a Young Artist. And yet, integral as it may be to the creative experience by offering an antidote to the arrogance that produces most mediocre art, self-doubt isn’t something we readily or heartily embrace. Instead, we run from it, we judge it, and we hedge against it using a range of coping mechanisms, many of which backfire into self-loathing. “Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt,” Zadie Smith advised in her ten rules of writing.
Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.
“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
The loving and attentive reader of children’s books knows that the best of them are not one-dimensional oversimplifications of life but stories that tackle with elegant simplicity such complexities as uncertainty, loneliness, loss, and the cycle of life. And anyone who sits with this awareness for a moment becomes suddenly skeptical of the very notion of a “children’s” book. Maurice Sendak certainly knew that when he scoffed in his final interview: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Seven decades earlier, J.R.R. Tolkien had articulated the same sentiment, with more politeness and academic rigor, in his terrific essay on why there is no such thing as writing “for children.” But one of the finest, most charming and most convincing renunciations of the myths about writing for children comes from E.B. White (July 11, 1899–October 1, 1985), nearly two decades after he sneezed Charlotte’s Web.
In a 1969 interview, included in the altogether unputdownable The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV (public library) — which also features wonderfully wide-ranging conversations with Haruki Murakami, Maya Angelou, Ezra Pound, Marilynne Robinson, William Styron and more — White turns his formidable amalgam of wit and wisdom to our culture’s limiting misconceptions about storytelling “for children.”
When the interviewer asks whether there is “any shifting of gears” in writing children’s books, as opposed to the grownup nonfiction for which he is best known, White responds with the rare combination of conviction and nuance:
Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears. But I don’t want to evade your question. There is a difference between writing for children and for adults. I am lucky, though, as I seldom seem to have my audience in mind when I am at work. It is as though they didn’t exist.
Echoing Ursula Nordstrom — the visionary editor and patron saint of childhood who brought to life not only Charlotte’s Web but also such classics as Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Giving Tree, and who famously insisted that children never want a blunt creative edge — White adds:
Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.
Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.
A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter… A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.
A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.
“Just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
Many celebrated writers have championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but no one has put the diary to more impressive practical use in the creative process than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968). In the spring of 1938, shortly after performing one of the greatest acts of artistic courage — that of changing one’s mind when a creative project is well underway, as Steinbeck did when he abandoned a book he felt wasn’t living up to his humanistic duty — he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life. The public fruit of this labor would become the 1939 masterwork The Grapes of Wrath — a title his politically radical wife, Carol Steinbeck, came up with after reading The Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Howe. The novel earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and was a cornerstone for his Nobel Prize two decades later, but its private fruit is in many ways at least as important and morally instructive.
Alongside the novel, Steinbeck also began keeping a diary, eventually published as Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — a remarkable living record of his creative journey, in which this extraordinary writer tussles with excruciating self-doubt (exactly the kind Virginia Woolf so memorably described) but plows forward anyway, with equal parts gusto and grist, driven by the dogged determination to do his best with the gift he has despite his limitations. His daily journaling becomes a practice both redemptive and transcendent.
Steinbeck had only two requests for the diary — that it wouldn’t be made public in his lifetime, and that it should be made available to his two sons so they could “look behind the myth and hearsay and flattery and slander a disappeared man becomes and to know to some extent what manner of man their father was.” It stands, above all, as a supreme testament to the fact that the sole substance of genius is the daily act of showing up.
Steinbeck captures this perfectly in an entry that applies just as well to any field of creative endeavor:
In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I feel like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.
The journal thus becomes at once a tool of self-discipline (he vowed to write in it every single weekday, and did, declaring in one of the first entries: “Work is the only good thing.”), a pacing mechanism (he gave himself seven months to complete the book, anticipated it would actually take only 100 days, and finished it in under five months, averaging 2,000 words per day, longhand, not including the diary), and a sounding board for much-needed positive self-talk in the face of constant doubt (“I am so lazy and the thing ahead is so very difficult,” he despairs in one entry; but he assures himself in another: “My will is low. I must build my will again. And I can do it.”) Above all, it is a tool of accountability to keep him moving forward despite life’s litany of distractions and responsibilities. “Problems pile up so that this book moves like a Tide Pool snail with a shell and barnacles on its back,” he writes, and yet the essential thing is that despite the problems, despite the barnacles, it does move. He captures this in one of his most poignant entries, shortly before completing the first half of the novel:
Every book seems the struggle of a whole life. And then, when it is done — pouf. Never happened. Best thing is to get the words down every day. And it is time to start now.
A few days later, he spirals into self-doubt again:
My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.
Indeed, upon starting the diary, Steinbeck is clear about its disciplining purpose and its role as a reminder this incremental daily progress, often slow and small, is precisely what produces the greater whole. In one of the first entries in early June, he writes:
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 slip.
Steinbeck’s commitment to discipline isn’t mere moral vanity or fetishism of productivity — his is an earnest yearning to create the greatest work of his life, the height of what he as a conscious and creative human being is capable. In one of the early entries, he resolves:
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 an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges. And I can do it. I feel very strong to do it.
But per Dani Shapiro’s astute distinction between confidence and courage, this is a statement of the latter, the truer virtue — Steinbeck is well aware of everything that might derail his efforts, vexations both external and internal, and yet he decides to exert himself anyway, to be wholehearted about the endeavor despite a profound lack of confidence. Here is courage, alive and throbbing, from another of the early entries:
All sorts of things might happen in the course of this book but I must not be weak. This must be done. The failure of will even for one day has a devastating effect on the whole, far more important than just the loss of time and wordage. The whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language. And sadly enough, if any of the discipline is gone, all of it suffers.
So single-minded is his sense of purpose that in one entry he declares:
Once this book is done I won’t care how soon I die, because my major work will be over.
And in another:
When I am all done I shall relax but not until then. My life isn’t very long and I must get one good book written before it ends.
But some days, his resolve barely overpowers his self-doubt:
If only I could do this book properly it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book. But I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. I’ll just have to work from a background of these. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty it is all I can expect of my poor brain — never temper a word to a reader’s prejudice, but bend it like putty for his understanding.
And some, the self-doubt becomes completely overwhelming:
If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.
On others, he is able to recognize the doubt but not buy into it:
For some reason I’m slightly skittish. That does not always mean anything. I’ll just take a running dive at it and set down what happens.
This, in a way, is the journal’s most emboldening quality — it is almost a Buddhist scripture, decades before Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, as Steinbeck faces the ebb and flow of experience. He feels his feelings of doubt fully, lets them run through him, and yet maintains a higher awareness that they are just that: feelings, not Truth.
Still, most striking and yet most strangely assuring of all — especially to those also laboring in the seething cauldron of uncertainty that is creative work — is Steinbeck’s chronic and acute case of Impostor Syndrome. Even though he had reached both critical and financial success with his earlier work, he seems not only mistrustful but even contemptuous of that success, seeing in it a source not of pride but of shame. In an early journal, he writes:
For the moment now the financial burdens have been removed. But it is not permanent. I was not made for success. I find myself now with a growing reputation. In many ways it is a terrible thing… Among other things I feel that I have put something over. That this little success of mine is cheating.
He is extremely harsh on himself, to a point of letting his suspicion of his own success swell into suspicion of his personal valor and the basic goodness of his character:
I must be sure to choose which is love and which sorryness. I’m not a very good person. Sometimes generous and good and kind and other times mean and short.
Like most artists, he repeatedly questions the validity of his art and his qualification for it:
Taylor [Ed. — next-door neighbor] just rakes his yard and putters. But he would probably do a better job of this than I am doing. More ship-shape. I wish I were he sometimes. Just rake the yard and mix a little cement. How did I ever get started on this writing business anyway? To work.
Even as he nears completion of the novel — remember, one that would win a Pulitzer and earn Steinbeck the Nobel Prize — he still mistrusts its merit and his talent:
This book has become a misery to me because of my inadequacy.
Shortly before beginning The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck captures in another journal the fake-it-till-you-make-it nature of self-salvation — of incredulously pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps despite a grave sense of insufficiency, of being a fraud about to be found out — and even anthropomorphizes the journal itself, addressing its pages with the same conflictedness with which he beholds his success:
I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me. I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now. That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me. You pages — ten of you — you are the dribble cup — you are the cloth to wipe up the vomit. Maybe I can get these fears and disgusts on you and then burn you up. Then maybe I won’t be so haunted. Have to pretend it’s that way anyhow.
He is especially mistrustful of public acclaim and the complacency it breeds:
Strange thing honor. The most sapping thing in the world.
Indeed, he measures his success not by income or acclaim but by the day’s work. In an entry from the beginning of the diary, he marvels at the enterprise and lays out its objectives:
Here is the diary of a book and it will be interesting to see how it works out. I have tried to keep diaries before but they don’t work out because of the necessity to be honest. In matters where there is no definite truth, I gravitate toward the opposite. Sometimes where there is a definite truth, I am revolted by its smugness and do the same. In this however, I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day.
Steinbeck is equally unperturbed by the commercial prospects of the finished product — it is the process that he extolls above all else, as a moral necessity:
Don’t know who will publish my book. Don’t know at all. No reason to let it slide though. Must keep at it. Necessary.
That process, for him, is fueled by what Anne Lamott would call the “bird by bird” approach to writing some decades later. The journal then becomes a pacing mechanism. A month into the work, Steinbeck writes:
I wonder whether I will ever finish this book. And of course I’ll finish it. Just work a certain length of time and it will get done poco a poco. Just do the day’s work.
As he nears the finish line, he is even more certain of this incremental reach for greatness:
I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.
In an entry that calls to mind Mary Oliver — “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue,”she wrote — Steinbeck reasons with himself to find a healthier pace and rhythm:
Must slow down and take it easier. Saturday had a feeling of exhaustion near to collapse. I guess I’d been working too hard. It’s not the amount of work but the almost physical drive that goes into it that seems to make the difference. I should take it a little easier or I won’t be finishing. I have just a page or so over 100 typescript pages done out of 600. I have five times as much work left to do as I have done already, so I must conserve strength because I do want to do this novel and finish it this time. Must get no fatal feelings about it.
A few days later, he paces himself again:
Think. Think tonight and tomorrow work harder but get sleep tonight. Need sleep.
And yet he is well aware that moderation is not among his talents:
I am simply incapable of working any way but hard and fast. That is the only way I can make it.
When he finishes the first section of the book, jubilant, he rewards himself with a rare period of rest:
And now Book One is done — rhyme, rhyme. And I am going to take Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday off.
One of the most heartening aspects of the diary is that it isn’t a log of the perfection of genius but a deeply assuring record of a flawed human being’s repeated micro-failures, followed by repeated returns to discipline. In one entry, he observes with equal parts incredulous marvel and dismay:
Although I got up early this morning I’m late getting to work and I don’t in the least know why.
In another, he laments:
Today much to my disgust the time has slipped away.
And then, he quickly exhorts himself, as he often does in the diary, which becomes a catalog of productivity mantras and positive self-talk out of doubt’s abyss:
Now to work god damn it and different work. Must get to it.
Particularly of note is Steinbeck’s relationship with distraction, which encompasses everything outside the work — both positive and negative interferences. Life itself is a distraction from the living world he is writing into existence — visits from friends (“Sue and Bob showed up this morning. Had to kick them out. Simply can’t have people around on working days.”), outings on the town (“Good time but Jesus how the work suffers.”), rest periods (“Always on week ends I have the feeling of wasted time.”), his own body (“I’m a little sick today… It is time to go to work and that is all there is to it.”), the dentist (“I go to the dentist at four. After which digression, get back to work.”), and even something as neutral as the seasonality of summer (“Exciting but I can’t allow excitement. Leave that for this winter.”). The diary becomes his voice of reason, in which he is constantly counseling himself on retaining focus, as he does in this entry from late August:
I must re-establish the discipline. Must get tough. So many attractive things are happening that it is difficult.
In another entry, penned shortly before he headed into town for a rodeo, Steinbeck urges himself:
Must be sure not to drink too much.
And yet he fails, then self-flagellates for the failure, writing the next day:
Only a quarter page. Rodeo blues and weakness… Drank lots of whiskey and had a fair time. Empty feeling, empty show. Same enthusiasm circus had whips up… And now home with a little stomach ache that doesn’t come from the stomach. Terrible feeling of lostness and loneliness.
But he manages, always, to get back on the bull –a constant dance of discipline and distraction that recurs throughout the diary. The next day, he writes:
Yesterday was a bust and I’m sorry but I think today will be all right.
In another entry, he chastises himself capitally — “Big Lazy Time” — and bemoans the fissures of his willpower:
Demoralization complete and seemingly unbeatable. So many things happening that I can’t not be interested.
Well past the midpoint of the book, he decries the external strain on the internal process:
Was ever a book written under greater difficulty?
But he is also well aware of his own responsibility, far from the illusion that external conditions alone determine the course of the work:
I’m afraid for this book, really afraid. Part of the difficulty lies in all the shooting at me, but the other half lies within myself.
In another entry, the dual pull of exasperation and commitment accelerates:
Always something. Just more this time. I can do it and I will do it, by God. It is just the discipline that is all. I’m wasting time today and I don’t care much. Everything goes in circles and I must think WORK.
Indeed, the diary becomes as much a tool of discipline as one of self-forgiveness. One day, he gives himself permission for diversion:
I’m dawdling today… I don’t care if I do dawdle some.
But if there is one lesson to be found in this difficult tango between distraction and discipline, it’s that half the work is abating distraction and the other half not becoming so preoccupied with abating it that the effort itself becomes a distraction device. (After all, E.B. White put it best: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”) At one point, Steinbeck becomes particularly preoccupied with the distracting presence of sound. In mid-June, he despairs:
After spending nearly seven thousand dollars to be alone and quiet, the neighbors run their radio all day and I get the benefit of it. Carol can hear them reading their letters to each other. We may have to move from this beautiful place.
But Steinbeck seems fully conscious of the admonition at the heart of White’s proclamation. In another entry, he writes:
It is particularly fine today because the noise next door has stopped at least for the moment. No cement mixer, or pounding on pipe or things like that. Almost too good to be true. It would be funny if the absence of noise made it hard. It won’t. It is delicious this silence. Absolutely delicious.
In some entries, he goes through the entire cycle of self-doubt, self-consolation, and crystalline awareness of the whole experience in a single stream-of-consciousness paragraph. Here is one from September 7, about a month away from finishing:
Dreamy sleep and coughing from too much smoking and confused by too many things happening and pretty worn out from too long work on manuscript. Have to cut down smoking or something. I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too. I’ve wanted so badly for it to be good. If it isn’t, I’m afraid I’m through in more ways than one. Carol is working too hard now, too. And I’ve been with this book so long now that I don’t know much about it, I’m afraid. Well — have to take that chance. After all, if only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves. I wish I could do that. I wish I would write only one page a day but I can’t. Got to go on at this rate or suffer for it. It must go on. I can’t stop.
Indeed, he frequently turns to the diary as a form of self-soothing, as much a mechanism for mobilization as one for calming himself:
This book is my sole responsibility and I must stick to it and nothing more. This book is my life now or must be. When it is done, then will be the time for another life. But, not until it is done. And the other lives have begun to get in. There is no doubt of that. That is why I am taking so much time in this diary this morning — to calm myself. My stomach and my nerves are screaming merry hell in protest against the inroads. I won’t be glad when it is done so why try to hurry it done? Now, I hope I calm down enough to start work again.
Underpinning all his practical frustrations and commitment to the writing process is Steinbeck’s larger philosophical awareness of the flash of presence we call life and the way in which we so often mistake the doing for the being:
So many things are happening. This is probably the high point of my life if I only knew it.
When I think how I am not following orders to do what people think I should do, I am scared, but then I think that it is my own work, if anything, that will be remembered. I can’t work for other people. I don’t do good work with their ideas. So I’ll go on with my own.
And yet even as he approaches the end, his self-doubt remains as unshakable as his commitment to finish:
I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing — it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do. Now to work on it.
The book, of course, was far from run-of-the-mill. In addition to earning the two highest accolades in literature, The Grapes of Wrath remained atop the bestseller list for almost a year after it was published on April 14, 1939, and sold nearly 430,000 copies in its first year alone. And therein lies the very thing that makes Working Days a necessary creative scripture for anyone laboring in the arts — the journal’s deeply assuring testament to the fact that even those of exceptional genius are plagued by constant self-doubt, and that perhaps the most important quality setting the brilliant apart from the mediocre is their willingness to let the doubt happen but plow forward anyway, not to be shown up by it but to show up doggedly for the day’s task, however monumental its ask and however small its give.
The great payoff is not critical or commercial success, but the knowledge that one has simply done one’s best.
I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.
For Strand, Csikszentmihalyi writes, “the poet’s responsibility to be a witness, a recorder of experience, is part of the broader responsibility we all have for keeping the universe ordered through our consciousness.” He quotes the poet’s own reflection — which calls to mind Rilke’s — on how our sense of mortality, our awareness that we are a cosmic accident, fuels most creative work:
We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention. In some ways, this is getting far afield. I mean, we are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. I don’t know that, but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.
But that response is not a coolly calculated, rational one. Echoing Mary Oliver’s memorable assertion that “attention without feeling … is only a report,” Strand describes the immersive, time-melting state of “flow” that Csikszentmihalyi himself had coined several years earlier — the intense psychoemotional surrender that the creative act of paying attention requires:
[When] you’re right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you’re doing, and you’re sort of swayed by the possibilities you see in this work. If that becomes too powerful, then you get up, because the excitement is too great. You can’t continue to work or continue to see the end of the work because you’re jumping ahead of yourself all the time. The idea is to be so… so saturated with it that there’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you’re, uh, making meaning. And dismantling meaning, and remaking it. Without undue regard for the words you’re using. It’s meaning carried to a high order. It’s not just essential communication, daily communication; it’s a total communication. When you’re working on something and you’re working well, you have the feeling that there’s no other way of saying what you’re saying.
The theme of the poem emerges in the writing, as one word suggests another, one image calls another into being. This is the problem-finding process that is typical of creative work in the arts as well as the sciences.
Strand speaks to this himself:
One of the amazing things about what I do is you don’t know when you’re going to be hit with an idea, you don’t know where it comes from. I think it has to do with language. Writers are people who have greater receptivity to language, and I think that they will see something in a phrase, or even in a word, that allows them to change it or improve what was there before. I have no idea where things come from. It’s a great mystery to me, but then so many things are. I don’t know why I’m me, I don’t know why I do the things I do. I don’t even know whether my writing is a way of figuring it out. I think that it’s inevitable, you learn more about yourself the more you write, but that’s not the purpose of writing. I don’t write to find out more about myself. I write because it amuses me.
I am always thinking in the back of my mind, there’s something always going on back there. I am always working, even if it’s sort of unconsciously, even though I’m carrying on conversations with people and doing other things, somewhere in the back of my mind I’m writing, mulling over. And another part of my mind is reviewing what I’ve done.
And yet too much surrender to this pull of the unconscious, Csikszentmihalyi cautions, can lead to a “mental meltdown that occurs when he gets too deeply involved with the writing of a poem.” He cites the practical antidotes Strand has developed:
To avoid blowing a fuse, he has developed a variety of rituals to distract himself: playing a few hands of solitaire, taking the dog for a walk, running “meaningless errands,” going to the kitchen to have a snack. Driving is an especially useful respite, because it forces him to concentrate on the road and thus relieves his mind from the burden of thought. Afterward, refreshed by the interval, he can return to work with a clearer mind.
Csikszentmihalyi crystallizes Strand’s creative process, with its osmotic balance of openness and structure, reveals about the optimal heartbeat of creative work:
Strand’s modus operandi seems to consist of a constant alternation between a highly concentrated critical assessment and a relaxed, receptive, nonjudgmental openness to experience. His attention coils and uncoils, its focus sharpens and softens, like the systolic and diastolic beat of the heart. It is out of this dynamic change of perspective that a good new work arises. Without openness the poet might miss the significant experience. But once the experience registers in his consciousness, he needs the focused, critical approach to transform it into a vivid verbal image that communicates its essence to the reader.
Csikszentmihalyi points out another necessary duality of creative work that Strand embodies:
Like most creative people, he does not take himself too seriously… But that does not mean that he takes his vocation lightly; in fact, his views of poetry are as serious as any. His writing grows out of the condition of mortality: Birth, love, and death are the stalks onto which his verse is grafted. To say anything new about these eternal themes he must do a lot of watching, a lot of reading, a lot of thinking. Strand sees his main skill as just paying attention to the textures and rhythms of life, being receptive to the multifaceted, constantly changing yet ever recurring stream of experiences. The secret of saying something new is to be patient. If one reacts too quickly, it is likely that the reaction will be superficial, a cliché.
In a sentiment that calls to mind one of Paul Goodman’s nine kinds of silence — “the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts” — Strand himself offers the simple, if not easy, secret of saying something new and meaningful:
Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut. For as long as possible.
I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.
When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on. Put it aside till the next morning; and if then you can’t make it out, and have no one to explain it to you, put it aside entirely, and go back to that part of the subject which you do understand. When I was reading Mathematics for University honors, I would sometimes, after working a week or two at some new book, and mastering ten or twenty pages, get into a hopeless muddle, and find it just as bad the next morning. My rule was to begin the book again. And perhaps in another fortnight I had come to the old difficulty with impetus enough to get over it. Or perhaps not. I have several books that I have begun over and over again.
His second tip is particularly noteworthy for the way it compares and contrasts Carroll’s two domains of genius, writing and mathematics — for, lest we forget, behind the pen name Lewis Carroll always remained the brilliant mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson. He writes:
My second hint shall be — Never leave an unsolved difficulty behind. I mean, don’t go any further in that book till the difficulty is conquered. In this point, Mathematics differs entirely from most other subjects. Suppose you are reading an Italian book, and come to a hopelessly obscure sentence — don’t waste too much time on it, skip it, and go on; you will do very well without it. But if you skip a mathematical difficulty, it is sure to crop up again: you will find some other proof depending on it, and you will only get deeper and deeper into the mud.
In a way, this dichotomy also illuminates the difference between reading and writing. Writing is almost mathematical, in the sense that it requires a clarity of logic in order for the writer to carry the plot forward. A reader may be able to read over a muddled sentence and still follow the plot — but only if that sentence was unmuddled for the writer in carrying the plot forward. In that sense, while Carroll’s advice to Edith considers her experience as a reader, his advice to a writer regarding creative block would be more closely aligned with the mathematician’s experience — if a writer were to skip over a difficulty in the construction of a story, which is essentially a logical difficulty, it too “is sure to crop up again.”
Carroll’s third tip is at once remarkably simple and remarkably challenging to apply for anyone who has ever tussled with the mentally draining but spiritually sticky process of creative problem-solving:
My third hint is, only go on working so long as the brain is quite clear. The moment you feel the ideas getting confused leave off and rest, or your penalty will be that you will never learn Mathematics at all!