John Steinbeck Has a Crisis in Confidence While Writing The Grapes of Wrath: “I am Not a Writer. I’ve Been Fooling Myself and Other People”

In a 1904 let­ter, Franz Kaf­ka famous­ly wrote, “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” a line immor­tal­ized in pop cul­ture by David Bowie’s “Ash­es to Ash­es.” Where Bowie referred to the frozen emo­tions of addic­tion, the arc­tic waste inside Kaf­ka may have had much more to do with the agony of writ­ing itself. In the year that he com­posed his best-known work, The Meta­mor­pho­sis, Kaf­ka kept a tor­tured jour­nal in which he con­fessed to feel­ing “vir­tu­al­ly use­less” and suf­fer­ing “unend­ing tor­ments.” Not only did he need to break the ice, but “you have to dive down,” he wrote on Jan­u­ary 30th, “and sink more rapid­ly than that which sinks in advance of you.”

Whether as writ­ers we find the evi­dence of Kafka’s crip­pling self-doubt to be a com­fort I can­not say. For many peo­ple, no mat­ter how suc­cess­ful, or pro­lif­ic, some degree of pain inevitably attends every act of writ­ing. And many, like Kaf­ka, have left per­son­al accounts of their most pro­duc­tive peri­ods. John Stein­beck strug­gled might­i­ly dur­ing the com­po­si­tion of his mas­ter­piece, The Grapes of Wrath. His jour­nal entries from the peri­od tell the sto­ry of a frayed and anx­ious man over­whelmed by the seem­ing enor­mi­ty of his task. But his exam­ple is instruc­tive as well: despite his frag­ile men­tal state and lack of con­fi­dence, he con­tin­ued to write, telling him­self on June 11th, 1938, “this must be a good book. It sim­ply must.” (See some of Stein­beck­’s hand­writ­ten entries in the image above, cour­tesy of Austin Kleon.)

In set­ting the bar so high—“For the first time I am work­ing on a real book,” he wrote—Steinbeck often felt crushed at the end of a day. “My whole ner­vous sys­tem in bat­tered,” he wrote on June 5th. “I hope I’m not head­ed for a ner­vous break­down.” He finds him­self a few days lat­er “assailed with my own igno­rance and inabil­i­ty.” He con­tin­ues in this vein. “Where has my dis­ci­pline gone?” he asks in August, “Have I lost con­trol?” By Sep­tem­ber he’s seek­ing per­spec­tive: “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 to hell with it.” The weight of expec­ta­tion comes and goes, but he keeps writ­ing.

The “pri­vate fruit” of Steinbeck’s diary entries, writes Maria Popo­va, “is in many ways at least as impor­tant and moral­ly instruc­tive” as the nov­el itself. At least that may be so for writ­ers who are also beset by dev­as­tat­ing neu­roses. For Stein­beck, the diary (pub­lished here) was “a tool of dis­ci­pline” and “hedge against self-doubt.” This may sound coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but keep­ing a diary, even when the nov­el stalls, is itself a dis­ci­pline, and an acknowl­edge­ment of the impor­tance of being hon­est with one­self, allow­ing tur­bu­lence and dol­drums to be a con­scious part of the expe­ri­ence.

Stein­beck “feels his feel­ings of doubt ful­ly, lets them run through him,” writes Popo­va, “and yet main­tains a high­er aware­ness that they are just that: feel­ings, not Truth.” His con­fronta­tions with neg­a­tive capa­bil­i­ty can sound like “Bud­dhist scrip­ture,” antic­i­pat­ing Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writ­ing. We needn’t attribute any reli­gious sig­nif­i­cance to Steinbeck’s jour­nals, but they do begin to sound like con­fes­sions of the kind many mys­tics have record­ed over the cen­turies, includ­ing the imposter syn­drome many a saint and bod­hisatt­va has admit­ted to feel­ing. “I’m not a writer,” he laments in one entry. “I’ve been fool­ing myself and oth­er peo­ple.” Nonethe­less, no mat­ter how excru­ci­at­ing, lone­ly, and con­fus­ing the effort, he resolved to devel­op a “qual­i­ty of fierce­ness until the habit pat­tern of a cer­tain num­ber of words is estab­lished.” A rit­u­al act, of a sort, which “must be a much stronger force than either willpow­er or inspi­ra­tion.”

In the audio above, hear actor Paul Hecht read excerpts from Stein­beck­’s diaries in an episode of the Mor­gan Library’s Diary Pod­cast. You can read Stein­beck­’s diaries in the pub­lished vol­ume, Work­ing Days: The Jour­nal of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938–1941.

via Austin Kleon 

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Franz Kaf­ka Ago­nized, Too, Over Writer’s Block: “Tried to Write, Vir­tu­al­ly Use­less;” “Com­plete Stand­still. Unend­ing Tor­ments” (1915)

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

See John Stein­beck Deliv­er His Apoc­a­lyp­tic Nobel Prize Speech (1962)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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