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 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.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.

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.

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:

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.

The publication of Grapes was so successful it brought Steinbeck financial success and 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.

Read more on self-doubt and the honest vulnerability of the creative in Stephen Fry’s autobiographic chronicle of an often self-hating man. I also recommend Rollo May’s timeless The Courage to Create, a psychological study of the debilitating aspects of fear.

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