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Excerpts from John Steinbeck's diary while writing The Grapes of Wrath

Sep 28, 2012

Excerpts from John Steinbeck’s diary while writing The Grapes of Wrath

In 1938, John Steinbeck began writing what he hoped would be a great novel, and to keep track of his writing progress, he started a daily diary. “Here is the diary of a book…it will be interesting to see how it works out.” The diary is collected in Working Days: The Journal of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938-1941.

The Morgan Library has a podcast of an actor reading from the diary at different points — it’s wonderfully reassuring to hear a talent like Steinbeck worry and fret and struggle and doubt his way through writing what is now considered a masterpiece.

Here are a few excerpts:

May 31, 1938: I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day. Just now the work goes well.

June 5: …My whole nervous system is battered…I hope I’m not headed for a nervous breakdown…

June 9: …This must be a good book. It simply must…

June 11: …My life isn’t very long and I must get one book written before it ends. The others have been make shifts, experiments, practices. For the first time I am working on a real book…

June 18: …I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty to it… If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity…

July 8: I wonder how this book will be. I wonder.

August 24: My nerves are going fast… I wish I could just disappear for a while.. I must get back into the stride and sweep. It isn’t just noise and bustle, it’s all the shots in my direction… Nowhere to turn. Nowhere. Can’t think of these things any more. Where has my discipline gone? Have I lost control?

September 7: So many things to drive me nuts… I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too… If only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves.

October 4: My laziness is overwhelming. I must knock it over… I’ve been looking back over this diary and by God the pressures were bad the whole damned time. There wasn’t a bit that wasn’t under pressure and now the pressure is removed and I’m still having trouble. It would be funny if my book was no good at all…

When it came time to write East of Eden, Steinbeck continued the diary tradition, but with letters to his editor instead:

Each working day from January 29 to November 1, 1951, John Steinbeck warmed up to the work of writing East of Eden with a letter to the late Pascal Covici, his friend and editor at The Viking Press. It was his way, he said, of “getting my mental arm in shape to pitch a good game.” Steinbeck’s letters were written on the left-hand pages of a notebook in which the facing pages would be filled with the test of East of Eden. They touched on many subjects—story arguments, trial flights of worknamship, concern for his sons.

You can read those letters in Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters and Steinbeck: A Life in Letters.

(Thanks to @jamesfflynn for this!)

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