Monday, December 14, 2009
Explaining the Inexplicable: Steinbeck on Writing
I'm reading a beautiful book of letters that John Steinbeck wrote to his editor while he was writing East of Eden. Eden's not a mystery, yet it is one of the most suspenseful novels I've ever read; Steinbeck placed his reader between a monumental battle of good versus evil and created perhaps the most villainous woman I have ever encountered in fiction.
What struck me first about Steinbeck's letters is how much time he devoted to them. It must have taken him hours, sometimes, to write these brilliant missives in the margin of a special notebook his editor had given him. They were, he said, a warm-up to the act of writing fiction.
What I noticed second was his eloquence, even in a supposedly casual letter, and how diction makes all the difference in a piece of writing.
Early in the book, Steinbeck assessed the act of writing itself. He explained that in order to do his best writing, he would do it for his sons--not for some large nebulous group, but for his sons who would one day read his novel:
" . . . sometimes in a man or woman awareness takes place--not very often and always inexplainable. There are no words for it because there is no one ever to tell. This is a secret not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness. The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through--not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can't be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible."
I couldn't put it much better than that. I feel "locked in wordlessness" much of the time when I try to write, and I'm reminded of the words of Fredric Jameson (a literary scholar and Marxist political theorist), who described this disconnect as "the prisonhouse of language" because we are, in a sense, trapped with the thoughts that we can never entirely express.
Interesting that Steinbeck and Jameson may have struggled to express it, yet the results were eloquent and memorable.
How do you define writing? Are you ever trapped in the prisonhouse, the wordlessness, that you must fight against?
Image: My college history notes. :)