John Steinbeck

Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters

“I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one.”

From the end of January to the beginning of November 1951, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) wrote East of Eden, his last great work, arguably his greatest, certainly his most personal.

To loosen his mind and reduce his anxiety, he began each day by writing a letter to his great friend and publisher, Pascal Covici.1

January 29, 1951

Dear Pat: How did time pass and how did it grow so late. Have we learned anything from the passage of time? Are we more mature, wiser, more perceptive, kinder? We have known each other now for centuries and still I remember the first time and the last time. We come now to the book. It has been planned a long time. I planned it when I didn’t know what it was about.

Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters continues Steinbeck’s working tradition of plucking out his self-awareness (he had volumes) and setting it aside so he could carry on the business of writing. When he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck kept a personal journal. Similarly, Steinbeck authorizes these letters to hold dominion over his progress.

The letters begin in confidence and strength but slowly reveal a man troubled. At the end of February, a few days before his 49th birthday, he writes: “This morning I am remiss.”

February 23 [Friday]

This is a sad day at the beginning. There is no telling what kind of day it will end up. A sadness I can’t write down although I know what it comes from. It is Friday…”

And yet, unlike his experience with Grapes, Steinbeck retains self-control. When flustered, he digs deeper into figures, dates, word counts, and plans and, ultimately, carries on without floundering in the paranoia he experienced while writing Grapes.

Steinbeck wrote that his daily letters to Covici loosened his creative abilities. Perhaps it was the passage of time and his experience, but I think the real difference between this experience and that a decade earlier was he was writing to a friend, rather than himself (he was notoriously self-critical).

My nerves are very bad, awful in fact. I lust to get back into it. Maybe I was silly to think I could write so long a book without stopping. I can’t. Or rather, couldn’t. I’ll try to go on now. Hope to lose some of the frantic quality in my mind now.

From John Steinbeck’s Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck positioned himself in what choreographer Twyla Tharp called a state of “being safe and secure” and what Rilke called “a feeling of home.” A position from which Tharp always worked, a position that evoked “mother.”

In his first letter, Steinbeck writes:

But sometimes in a man or a woman awareness takes place—not very often and always unexplainable. 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 wordlessness.

Photo of John Steinbeck in 1959.
John Steinbeck in 1959.” I am frightfully afraid of being alone” Steinbeck once wrote of his complex relationship with solitude his entire career.

Creativity comes from a deeply vulnerable state, an openness to ideas and what Alan Lightman calls “divergent thinking.” To achieve this, we must feel safe. Rollo May’s Courage to Create, a ground-breaking study of fear and creativity, details the paradox of creative strength and personal vulnerability.

August 29 [Wednesday]

There’s a real feeling of finality in the air here. We have two weeks and half more so it is not as near as I seem to indicate but the fall is surely coming. And I have an autumn feeling in me. This is one of the best feelings I know. I have always loved the fall. No reason. It is filled with a warm sweet sadness which is a close relative to pleasure and not very far removed.

Steinbeck lingers in this exceptional space, suffers, and more often than not draws out greatness.

March 13, Tuesday

Things do happen and continue to happen on the outside. Isn’t that odd that I now regard the book as the inside and the world as the outside. And just as long as that is so the book is firm and the outside cannot hurt it or stop it. And I must be sure that it remains that way by never letting time go by without working on it. For it is one thing to have in one’s mind that the book will never be done and quite another to let it stop moving.

The practice of writing to a friend to set ourselves in a warm, even nurturing state has been used by many. Read more from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Roald Dahl (who wrote to his mother every week for forty years), and both Maya Angelou and Anna Deavere Smith, who wrote to imagined friends and daughters as a means of creative encouragement.

In the draft dedication for East of Eden Steinbeck recognized his friend’s critical role:

The dedication is to you with all the admiration and affection that have been distilled from our singularly blessed association of many years. This book is inscribed to you because you have been part of its birth and growth.

John Steinbeck © The Examined Life