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. :)


Sandra Parshall said...

In answer to your question: all the time! I have never written anything that lived up to my mental concept of it. I always feel as if I've failed to do what I set out to do. The weak connection between thought and outward expression is bewildering and dispiriting. Yet I keep trying.

Humans are the only animals with a written language, the only animals that feel driven to record experiences in written words. When you consider what fiction is -- the invention of other worlds, populated by imaginary people with lives of their own -- our use of language seems even stranger. I can't imagine a chimpanzee lying awake at night worrying about chapter 4. :-)

Julia Buckley said...

Haha. Good point. We are also apparently driven to live alternate lives in alternate worlds, now that the internet provides that opportunity. The need for creative expression, I guess.

Simon Hay said...

I've always lived by the rule if I'm telling stories this week that happened last year, it's time for me to retire. A cup of tea, a quiet night, and the desire to dream.

Julia Buckley said...

A very poetic insight, Simon.

Anonymous said...

Have you read Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. edited by Elaine Steinbeck & Robert Wallsten, Penguin Books, in print in paperback

kathy d. said...

I am in awe of every writer who sticks it out to publication of their book. Have two friends who have written "a novel" for years, gone to writing classes, done research and constant rewrites, and they can't get their books published.

One friend started her novel 25 years ago and has changed the themes and characters. Another has been writing her novel for ten years; that manuscript is chockful of her writing work.

Yet, they keep trying. I admire everyone, especially every woman who keeps on going, despite life's problems, worries, insecurities, and writes and does all of the work, then deals with publishers, agents, and everyone else--the highs and the lows, and the work.

Julia Buckley said...

I have not read it, but it sounds wonderful; I'm guessing I would enjoy his letters since I'm finding his journals so rewarding. Thanks for the tip!

Kathy, it's nice of you to support your friends who are writers. I think that once someone commits to that book inside her, it's difficult to let go. I hope your friends find a publisher--it is, after all, persistence that wins in the end.