John Steinbeck’s Six Tips for the Aspiring Writer and His Nobel Prize Speech

Today is the 110th birth­day of writer John Stein­beck, whose great nov­el of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath, gives an elo­quent and sym­pa­thet­ic voice to the dis­pos­sessed. In 1962, Stein­beck was award­ed the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture “for his real­is­tic and imag­i­na­tive writ­ings, com­bin­ing as they do sym­pa­thet­ic humour and keen social per­cep­tion.” You can watch him deliv­er his Nobel speech above.

And for insights into how Stein­beck reached that pin­na­cle, you can read a col­lec­tion of his obser­va­tions on the art of fic­tion from the Fall, 1975 edi­tion of The Paris Review, includ­ing six writ­ing tips jot­ted down in a let­ter to a friend the same year he won the Nobel Prize. “The fol­low­ing,” Stein­beck writes, “are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.”

1. Aban­don the idea that you are ever going to fin­ish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets fin­ished, you are always sur­prised.

2. Write freely and as rapid­ly as pos­si­ble and throw the whole thing on paper. Nev­er cor­rect or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usu­al­ly found to be an excuse for not going on. It also inter­feres with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of uncon­scious asso­ci­a­tion with the mate­r­i­al.

3. For­get your gen­er­al­ized audi­ence. In the first place, the name­less, face­less audi­ence will scare you to death and in the sec­ond place, unlike the the­ater, it does­n’t exist. In writ­ing, your audi­ence is one sin­gle read­er. I have found that some­times it helps to pick out one person–a real per­son you know, or an imag­ined per­son and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a sec­tion gets the bet­ter of you and you still think you want it–bypass it and go on. When you have fin­ished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the rea­son it gave trou­ble is because it did­n’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dear­er than the rest. It will usu­al­ly be found that it is out of draw­ing.

6. If you are using dialogue–say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

“As you write,” Stein­beck says, “trust the dis­con­nec­tions and the gaps. If you have writ­ten what your eye first saw and you are stopped, see again. See some­thing else. Take a leap to anoth­er image. Don’t require of your­self that you under­stand the con­nec­tion. Some of the most bril­liant things that hap­pen in fic­tion occur when the writer allows what seems to be a dis­con­nect­ed image to lead him or her away from the line that was being tak­en.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Remem­ber­ing Ernest Hem­ing­way, Fifty Years After His Death

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Comments (7)
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  • Shelley says:

    One of the things I do to keep from going nuts is to remem­ber Steinbeck–he wrote about the peo­ple who left, I write about the peo­ple who stayed–and I real­ly like that phrase, “out of draw­ing.”

  • As a com­ple­ment to Stein­beck­’s touch­ing speech (shown above), I offer this thought from Leonar­do da Vin­ci: “Feath­ers shall raise men even as they do birds, toward heav­en; that is, by let­ters writ­ten with their quills.”

  • Jen says:

    Can some­one explain #5 — the phrase “out of draw­ing”?

  • Mike Springer says:

    It’s a good ques­tion, Jen. The best expla­na­tion I’ve seen is from artist Mary Adam, who writes:

    “the expres­sion ‘out of draw­ing’ means that a draw­ing is off in some way, usu­al­ly pro­por­tions or fore­short­en­ing, sim­i­lar to what ‘out of tune’ means in music. When a fig­ure draw­ing or por­trait is out of draw­ing, it makes the per­son look deformed, it may be ever so slight­ly, for instance the gaze of the two eyes. If you have to won­der it is prob­a­bly wrong. The sad thing is that the artist is often unable to see it, such is the nature of the artist’s ego.”

  • Dave says:

    It could mean that it is not in the pot, that no one will find it, it isn’t even there. It’s a dar­ling, with­holds move­ment, stymies the action or diverts atten­tion from the impor­tance of the scene.

  • Jacob says:

    I inter­pret the phrase ‘out of draw­ing’ when refer­ring to a sec­tion “that becomes too dear to you” to mean it will be out of har­mo­ny with the rest, as a fine­ly detailed sec­tion amidst a less detailed whole.

  • richard Jerome kennedy says:

    It means maybe that it does­n’t have a tick­et of a chance for win­ning any­thing, includ­ing read­ers.

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