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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