Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel and me ….

December 20, 2008

I rarely reread books. I mean to, but somehow another book always catches my eye. I’ve read The Fountainhead two or three times, Atlas Shrugged twice. I’ve read Jim Harrison’s novella “Legends of the Fall” several times. After that, I’m pretty much at a loss to say I’ve read more than once.

I did just finish a reread of Journal of a Novel, though, by John Steinbeck, which I read for the first time about 25 years ago.

Steinbeck wrote Journal of a Novel not for publication, but as a way of warming up during the period he was writing East of Eden. He directed it as a series of letters to his editor Pascal “Pat” Covici. He wrote each working day from January 29th to November 1 1951, usually Monday through Friday with only an occasional weekend day thrown in.

Steinbeck wrote both his letters and East of Eden in pencil in an oversized notebook given him by Covici. The letters were written on the left side, and the novel itself on the right side. They touch on many subjects related to East of Eden, but also upon Steinbeck’s sons, every day things, comments on publishing and literature, and even the World Series.

Steinbeck waxes poetically about his love of pencils, too, buying four to six dozen at a time and constantly sharpening them to a fine point while he writes. At the beginning of the journal he tests several different types of pencil, and one of his admitted indulgences is only using a pencil to a certain length — that is, until the eraser reaches the back of his hand.

kayleigh and I can lose a considerable amount of time wandering through an office supply store, so I can understand Steinbeck’s love of pencils, the notebook, even the paper inside it.

After I read Journal of a Novel for the first time, I followed the letter writing idea to warm up my own writing. I wrote my cousin, whom I corresponded with regularly anyway. The project didn’t last too long, not because of the letter writing but because of the story. I was also more enamored of the idea of warming up than I was with the actual project.

In cleaning my file cabinets a few months ago I found both the letters to my cousin and the story. The story still sucks. The letters, not so much.

But now I wonder what to do with them.

I do that a lot, wondering what to do with old writing. Old writing is fairly useless. It takes up space and it brings both good and bad memories. I should just toss it all out, I know.

But in doing so, I toss out my past. I toss out who I was at the time I wrote them. I toss out pieces of me.

I’ll probably throw it all away eventually. As much as I hoped otherwise, I will have no biographers who will delight in examining it.

But until then, if something happens to me, the people around here are going to experience a lot of surprises, and not a little bit of displeasure with the amount of paper they need to discard, and maybe with what they might read.


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