Thursday, September 17, 2009

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck, a writer I loved as a college student and still do, was interviewed twice by the Paris Review, once in 1969, and again, in 1975. The dates aren’t important, but the content of what he said in each made me get back into my novel again with some new, different energy.

From a Paris Review interview in 1969:

“The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through—not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can't be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible.

So many times, as I write, I hit this bottomless pit of possibility, and that is when the world of distraction swoops in and takes me again. Steinbeck, with this quote, is saying that that’s okay. We need to not give ourselves a hard time…ever. We are alone too much and too often to give our only audience—ourselves—a hard time.

Which leads me to another thing he said to The Paris Review in 1975:

“Writing to me is a deeply personal, even a secret function and when the product I turned loose it is cut off from me and I have no sense of its being mine. Consequently criticism doesn’t mean anything to me. As a disciplinary matter, it is too late.”

This state of mind is healthy. If you are submitting that book and you are on to another, and the book you’re shopping is something that you seem disconnected toward, then that’s perfectly okay. In this day and age, all you have to do is click on the television, or the internet, or turn on a CD, or watch a movie, to see thousands of moments at their absolute climax. We do not have to be 100% passion, all the time. We do not need to be ‘on’ all the time, and sometimes, at least from what I see in my generation, all I see around me (myself included, sadly…) are showmen, or performers.

Sometimes, there is no passion, and that, at least for me, is something I need to remember can be a good thing too. Because those moments might at times be the most honest.


  1. I think it does writers good to let go every once in a while. To just allow themselves to be. Put down the novel-in-progress and live life being fully present in the moment. I find it very grounding and a boost to my creativity.


  2. Cool quotes. I like the idea of aiming at writing the unwritable.

    I've been having the opposite thought too as of late, which is to write what is familiar, but in a different way. This is of course thinking more commercially, but the reality is that when I shop for a book I am looking for one that suits my taste, not one that communicates the inexplicable. On the other hand, I've grown a bit bored from reading the same old type of thing. The result, perhaps not too strangely, is that I'm reading more in other genres (memoir) right now, at least when I get a chance to read.

    And, what I like about the memoir I'm on right now, is that the author does explain things that are beyond my experience. Actually, I wonder how she is able to create the scenes she does when some of them are from her parents experience before she is born. That, you would think, should be the inexplicable, but she pulls it off.

    Her name is Kalia Yang and the book is called The Late Homecomer, in case you were wondering.

  3. Thanks for posting this. It is so true. I really like the quotes you picked from the Paris review. Writing is like leaving your home without moving and searching for things you would never find even if you did. Its your personal journey to the creative unknown. Perhaps the creative wilderness we all have within and that is passion, but passion in its root means suffering like flamenco dancers do when they lost in their dance trying to attune their energy with a higher plane. Its a longing. A creative longing we all have. Thanks

  4. explaining the inexplicable...what an excellent reminder. ultimately, there is a higher/deeper/more complex emotion/ideal/hope that we are attempting to relay. it's not just a story, then...


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