John Steinbeck

Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters

“Yesterday was a bust; I suppose the greatest of self-indulgence. I guess that is why I give myself so much time for error.”

From the end of January to the beginning of November 1951, John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968) wrote East of Eden, his last great work. To loosen his mind and reduce his anxiety, he began each day by writing a letter to his great friend and publisher, Pascal Covici.

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 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).

Steinbeck positioned himself in what choreographer Twyla Tharp called a state of “being safe and secure.” A position from which Tharp always worked, a position that evoked “mother.” In his first letter, he 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.

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.

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.

John Steinbeck © The Examined Life