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📚 Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck

This is a wonderful companion to the East of Eden novel. I am so glad I read it straight after, as I could still recall exactly the chapters and characters that Steinbeck refers to in his notes.

All of the notes are addressed to Pascal Covici, Steinbeck’s editor. The author uses them in order to warm up for the day’s writing:

You must think I waste an awful lot of time on these notes to you but actually it is the warm-up period. It is the time of drawing thoughts together and I don’t resent it one bit. I apparently have to dawdle a certain amount before I go to work. Also if I keep the dawdling in this form I never leave my story. If I wrote my dawdles some other way I would be thinking all over the map.

It’s so interesting to see ‘behind the curtain’ and read the mental struggles that he went through in the process of creating his book. Over the past two years of COVID-19 lockdowns and working from home I have noticed how some days feel great and others awful, for no discernible reason whatsoever. It seems that this is a shared experience:

This is not a morning of great joy for some reason or other. I don’t understand why some days are wide open and others closed off, some days smile and others have thin slitted eyes and others still are days which worry. And it does not seem to be me but the day itself. It has a nature of its own quite separate from all other days.

Today is a dawdly day. They seem to alternate. I do a whole of a day’s work and then the next day, flushed with triumph, I dawdle. That’s today.

Went to bed early last night, read happily, slept happily. Got up early and suddenly felt terrible—just terrible. Fought that off and was drained dry. Then I forced the work and it was as false and labored and foolish as anything I have ever seen. I tried to kid myself that it only seemed bad but it really was bad. So out it goes. And what do you suppose could have caused it? I just don’t know.

He also procrastinates when he has a particularly difficult piece of writing coming up:

I wish I knew how people do good and long-sustained work and still keep all kinds of other lives going—social, economic, etc. I can’t. I seem to have to waste time, so much dawdling to so much work. I am frightened by this week before it even happens.

I feel just worthless today. I have to drive myself. I have used every physical excuse not to work except fake illness. I have dawdled, gone to the toilet innumerable times, had many glasses of water. Really childish. I know that one of the reasons is that I dread the next scene, dread it like hell.

It was interesting to read his thoughts on the structure and content of the book which ended up being quite different in the finished novel. It boggles the mind how this was achieved during a time before word processors and the Internet, with precious handwritten pages being couriered from the author’s home to the publisher, and typed manuscript being reviewed and edited by hand.

East of Eden is long and it seems that Steinbeck knew this would be the case from the start. He has a theory about the impact of long versus short books on the reader:

Now—we must think of a book as a wedge driven into a man’s personal life. A short book would be in and out quickly. And it is possible for such a wedge to open the mind and do its work before it is withdrawn leaving quivering nerves and cut tissue. A long book, on the other hand, drives in very slowly and if only in point of time remains for a while. Instead of cutting and leaving, it allows the mind to rearrange itself to fit around the wedge. Let’s carry the analogy a little farther. When the quick wedge is withdrawn, the tendency of the mind is quickly to heal itself exactly as it was before the attack. With the long book perhaps the healing has been warped around the shape of the wedge so that when the wedge is finally withdrawn and the book set down, the mind cannot ever be quite what it was before. This is my theory and it may explain the greater importance of a long book.

If you read East of Eden and enjoyed the work, this additional book is well worth your time.

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