Steinbeck’s advice on getting started

When I’m supposed to be writing but don’t quite have the nerve, I read. I have a special stack of books of interviews with famous writers about writing, and I read them and take notes when all else fails. I often type up those notes as a way to get the fingers moving, and soon I shift over to whatever writing project I was supposed to be doing in the first place. Today I found some good advice from John Steinbeck:

On Getting Started

Now let me give you the benefit of my experience facing 400 pages of blank stock – the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is why it’s so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.

  1. Abandon the idea 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 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 general 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 the reason it gave you trouble was that 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 dialog say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

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

2 Responses to “Steinbeck’s advice on getting started”

  1. Sean Crawford

    Hi Scott,
    ^Ahem!^ In a social workers voice: When I hear your second paragraph, I sense you feel shy about preaching.
    My own voice: Who cares? I for one plan to keep learning all my life, so, if you will please keep on preaching then I will keep on gently laughing every time you are wrong… a little preaching never hurt me.

    God bless Steinbeck, but for point five, although I know what you meant, the explanation is a little unclear to me.

    I confess I still have trouble with point two. Sometimes it helps if I keep telling myself to keep my left and right brain separate. … Too bad it doesn’t work to tell myself just once.

  2. Stephen Lead

    No 2 sounds like terrible advice for a programmer :)


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