Steinbeck on writing:

Writing is a very silly business at best. There is a certain ridiculousness about putting down a picture of life. And to add to the joke – one must withdraw for a time from life in order to set down that picture. And third one must distort one’s own way of life in order in some sense to simulate the the normal in other lives. Having gone through all this nonsense what emerges may well be the palest of reflections. Oh! It’s a real horse’s ass business. The mountain labors and groans and strains and the tinniest of rodents comes out. And the greatest foolishness of all lies in the fact that to do it all, the writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true. If he does not, the work is not even worth what it might otherwise have been.

All this is a preface to the fear and uncertainties which clammer over a man so that in his silly work he thinks he must be crazy because he is so alone. If what he is doing is worth doing – why don’t more people do it? Such questions. But it does seem a desperately futile business and one which must be very humorous to watch. Intelligent people live their lives as nearly on a level as possible – try to be good, don’t worry if they aren’t, hold to such opinions as are comforting and reassuring and throw out those which are not. And in the fullness of their days they die with none of the tearing pain of failure because having tried nothing they have not failed. These people are much more intelligent than the fools who rip themselves to pieces on nonsense.

…but I believe the great ones, Plato, Lao Tze, Buddha, Christ, Paul and the great Hebrew prophets are not remembered for negation or denial. Not that it is necessary to be remembered but there is one purpose in writing I can see, beyond simply doing it interestingly. It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage. If the written word has contributed anything at all to our developing species and our half developed culture, it is this: Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult, a wisdom to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. And how any negative or despairing approach can pretend to be literature I do not know. It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would milleniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth, and a few remnants of fossilized jaw bones, a few teeth in strata of limestone would be the only mark our species would have left on the earth.

From Writers at Work, The Paris review interviews, 4th series.

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4 Responses to “Quote of the month: Steinbeck on writing”

  1. Abraham Meislow |

    Leave it to Steinbeck to perfectly epitomize the heart and mind of a writer in so few words. Yes we must believe that all of our earth shaking efforts are for the best, and yes the things that result are often nowhere near the impact that we wish. But a writer is a writer because he/she knows no other way to live.

    Reply
  2. Sean Crawford |

    I would go further. A character in a Heinlein novel once disparaged anyone who would recite his own poetry in public. Fair comment. But I would say this: If a poet/fiction writer/essayist does not constantly bite his tongue to prevent such unfortunate reciting, then he is not truly an artist. So far, I have never recited in public but–ouch!–my tongue!

    Reply
  3. Tony Roberts |

    Years ago, I read in a biography of Steinbeck’s that a surgeon once told him, “I think I might take some time off and write a novel one day.”

    Steinbeck replied, “Funny, I was just thinking of taking some time off and performing an appendectomy.”

    Reply
  1. [...] The second article that I hope will shape my writing more is this Steinbeck quote: [...]

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