Sunday, December 19, 2010

John Steinbeck On the Art of Fiction

"Although sometimes I have felt that I held fire in my hands and spread a page with shining—I have never lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability." ~John Steinbeck

Writers are a different kind of animal. No one completely understands their struggles. This is probably why writers enjoy reading about other writers, so as to be affirmed that we are not alone, even though the arenas we battle in are solitary.

John Steinbeck, one of the great writers of the last century, once indicated to The Paris Review a willingness to be interviewed before he died. The interview never took place as Steinbeck crossed the river in 1968, becoming inaccessible. Nevertheless, by means of his diaries and letters, the great writer's thoughts and insights about writing were scattered all over. As a courtesy to the rest of us who care about these things, The Paris Review assembled these scattered notes and observations in a 21 page article rich with insight.

Here is one passage, with a link to the entire piece further on.

A man who writes a story is forced to put into it the best of his knowledge and the best of his feeling. The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty. A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator. Of course, there are dishonest writers who go on for a little while, but not for long—not for long.

A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn't telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel—
“Yes, that's the way it is, or at least that's the way I feel it. You're not as alone as you thought.”


Of course a writer rearranges life, shortens time intervals, sharpens events, and devises beginnings, middles and ends. We do have curtains—in a day, morning, noon and night, in a man, birth, growth and death. These are curtain rise and curtain fall, but the story goes on and nothing finishes.


To finish is sadness to a writer—a little death. He puts the last word down and it is done. But it isn't really done. The story goes on and leaves the writer behind, for no story is ever done.

The excerpts and snippets assembled in this article cover a wide range of topics related to writing including getting started, luck, work habits, inspiration, writing verse, the short story, hack writing, size, character, intent, the craft of writing, competition, titles, critics, relaxation, having a writer in the family, honors, Hemingway and fame.

If you are a writer, and especially if you are a Steinbeck fan, here's a link to a very good read. Savor it.

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