Art is the stuff of work, not dreams. This truism is illustrated in raw form in John Steinbeck’s (1902-1968) 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.
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. However, the diary also shows Steinbeck’s fragile mental state during this intensely productive period. As the writing progresses, his self-doubt intensifies.
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.
After a weekend visitor he writes:
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.
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 Noble Prize for Literature in 1962, the same year he set out across America to regain acquaintance with his precious country.
In the end Steinbeck completes 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:
I am fresh again and that is good. My brain is clear for details. I can almost finish in one piece I should think. I want to. I shouldn’t be thinking about getting done. Should be thinking only of the story and, by God, I will. I can’t let future interfere with the hardest, most complete work of my life.
Read more on self-doubt and the honest vulnerability of the creative in Stephen Fry’s autobiographic chronicle of an often self-hating man. For more on the reinforcing effect of discipline and creative energy read Twyla Tharp’s wise and invigorating The Creative Habit.