John Steinbeck

Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath

“This is the longest diary I ever kept. Not a diary of course but an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel.”

Art is the stuff of work, not dreams. This truth is illustrated in raw form in John Steinbeck’s (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) daily journal—he called it his work diary—kept during his tremendously productive period in 1938, during which he wrote The Grapes of Wrath.

Steinbeck empowered Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath to motivate productivity and deliver discipline.

[May 31, 1938 – Tuesday]

Here is the diary of a book and it will be interesting to see how it works out. I have tried to keep diaries before they don’t work out because of the necessity to be honest. In matters where there is not definitive truth, I gravitate toward the opposite. Sometimes when there is a definite truth, I am revolted by its smugness and do the same. In this however, I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I know it) of the day. Just now the work goes well. It is nearly the first of June. That means I have seven months to do this book and I should like to take them but I imagine five will be the limit. I have never taken long actually to do the writing. I want this one to be leisurely though. That is one of the reasons for the diary.

June 8 [1938] – 10:45 [Wednesday]

This is the longest diary I ever kept. Not a diary of course but an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel. If a day is skipped it will show glaringly on this record and there will be some reason given for the slip.

It worked. He wrote daily and drew energy and strength from the routine.1

It worked in that the result was The Grapes of Wrath. But the cost to Steinbeck was dear. The Journal shows Steinbeck’s fragile mental state during this intensely productive period. As the writing progressed, his self-doubt intensified.2

Solitary streets of German-Bohemia. Featured in Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet" in the Examined Life Library.
“Love your solitude and bear the pain it causes you with melody wrought with lament” advised Rilke to a young poet, echoing Steinbeck “Unless a writer is capable of solitude he should leave books alone and go into the theatre.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

June 30 [1938 – 11:15 [Tuesday]

My system of time has indeed collapsed. Today – the last day of June I have finished in one month Book One, the background of this novel. One general chapter today and it will be a short one, too. The empty and deserted houses. Yesterday the work was short and I went over the whole of the book in my head – fixed on that last scene, huge and symbolic, toward which the whole story moves. And that was a good thing, for it was a reunderstanding of the dignity of the effort and the mightyness of the theme. I felt very small and inadequate and incapable but I grew again to love the story which is so much greater than I am. To love and admire the people who are so much stronger and purer and braver than I am.

With a consideration for truth Steinbeck presses himself into his book and slowly, deliberately forms the book piece by piece.

June 9 [1938] – 11:45 [Thursday]

With luck I should be finished with this first draft in October sometime and then God knows what I’ll do. I’ll surely be ready for a rest. Sometimes now I get a bit tired just with the multitude of this story but the movement is so fascinating that I don’t stay tired. … This must be a good book. It simply must. I haven’t any choice. It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted – slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges. And I can do it. I feel very strong to do it.

It was into Grapes of Wrath, this wholly consequential book, that Steinbeck poured his complex phalanx theories, the idea that the brotherhood and unity of men exists far great than its parts. Steinbeck’s theories and the book itself was based on his extensive integration into the migrant farmer communities in Visalia, California.

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" featured in John Steinbeck's "Working Days" in the Examined Life Library.
“Migrant Mother” 1936, by Dorothea Lange a documentary photographer for the U. S. Government. The photo was taken inside a pea-pickers camp at Nipomo Mesa, California. Workers arrived looking for work and found the fields ruined by frost. Learn more.

As Grapes nears completion, Steinbeck’s writing in the diary becomes choppy, even incoherent. He fixates on self-doubt and develops an almost paranoid fear of being sidetracked and interrupted.

August 29 [1938] – 10:30 [Monday]

Now I have lost a great deal of time. I have been remiss and lazy, my concentration I have permitted to go under the line of effort. If this has been the first time I should be very sad. But I am always this way. I can concentrate and under some circumstances I can work. My job is to get down to it and now. For all the pressures, there is only one person to blame and I must force him into it. The point is that I am over half through with this book.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In the most painful and tender moments, this great writer questions everything: “I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, the same year he set out across America to regain acquaintance with his precious country.

In the end, Steinbeck completed The Grapes of Wrath by finding strength in his belief that what he writes—this philosophy of brotherhood and unity put down in narrative—is fundamentally necessary.

October 26 [1938] – 10:30 [Wednesday]

Today should be a day of joy because I could finish today – just the walk to the barn, the new people and the ending that’s all. But I seem to have contracted an influenza of the stomach or something. Anyway I’m so dizzy I can hardly see the page. This makes it difficult to work. On the other hand, it might get worse. I might be in for a siege. Can’t afford to take that chance. I must go on. If I can finish today I don’t much care what happens afterwards. Wish -if it was inevitable, that could have held off one more day. My fault really for having muffed on Monday oddly enough. I feel better – sitting here. I wish I were done. Best way is to just get down to the lines. I wonder if this flu could be simple and complete exhaustion. I don’t know. But I do know that I’ll have to start at it now and, of course, anything I do will be that much nearer the end.

Finished this day – and hope to God it’s good.

The publication of Grapes was so successful it brought Steinbeck unwanted publicity. The attention and undesired flattery and expectations wrought his mental state even more and led him to once again turn to the journal.

I am ill—ill in the mind. My head is a grey cloud in which colors drift about and images half-form. I’m bludgeoned and feel beaten by many little things. And I can’t figure answers to them. Many people think clearly all the time and make nice decisions. I don’t know. But I feel very lost and lonesome and no other way—for me, I mean. […] I don’t seem to have the knack of living any more. The clock is running down, my clock. This book has to be written. It should be good. I think it is my book. Maybe those people who saw that I should never deal with thinking subjects are correct… I think I’ll leave this book now.

When Steinbeck wrote his longest and last great novel, East of Eden, he approached it anew. Rather than the ricochet of thoughts in a journal addressed to himself, he wrote daily letters to his friend and editor. This new writing habit lifted him from the torpor and loneliness.

Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers. Working Days is a warm, generous extension of a tremendously sensitive human. It speaks unmatched truth about the complexity and passion of the creative.

John Steinbeck © The Examined Life