Day One, continued

Hey–Been writing and packing.

My book is looking good. I think I will be through this draft much faster than I thought.

How are YOU doing?

This should make you feel great! It did me!

“I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.”

Who said that? John Steinbeck. (He was one of my first writing teachers. I read everything of his I could get my hands on–and learned so much from him.)

In fact, here’s a letter from him that I quite liked. In fact, I LOVE this letter. It was written in 1963, a few years before Mr. Steinbeck died.

Dear Writer:
      Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.

      The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all – so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.

      So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher’s side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.

      It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.

      If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

      It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

      I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic ’20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.

      I was told, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”

      “Why?” I asked.

      “Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”

      It wasn’t too long afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time – a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.

      She told me it wouldn’t.



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9 responses to “Day One, continued

  1. Amy

    LOVE LOVE LOVE that letter! I FEEL this letter.
    Who was it written to? What a treasure!

    As for today, I’m still here, still working. Wondering at this point if I can reach all of my goals I set for the day, or if I need to work into the night. Mondays are my precious days, so much to do on my one day ‘off’.

    • CLW

      Hope it’s going well, Amy! And I am not sure if it was written to anyone more specific than Dear Writers. Reading this letter, well, I know why I loved Steinbeck. He seems so human.

  2. Andrea

    Wow. That letter is incredibly heartening. Thanks for passing it on.

    I didn’t ever post my marathon goal. I plan to write 800 words a day, or a total of 9600 words over the course of the marathon. That seems small, but I promise that for me, right now, 800 words a day will be a big challenge:). I do have a secret goal too. Just in case I can pull it off.

  3. Chris M

    I’m going to finish the book i’m on now (three more chapters), then start the rewite because turned into something other than I had in mind. I also want to start a short story that refuses to leave me alone. Chris M.

  4. sueburton

    “If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.”

    I like this because it tells me that maybe it’s safe to be unsafe–I mean, to not follow someone else’s formula. I want to be the best writer I can be, not a formula follower. My story refuses to show me if it’s following a formula. It may be an ineffective story as yet, but I hope . . . someday . . .

  5. I loved this letter. Such beautiful simplicity. Can I be a combination of Carol Lynch Williams and John Steinbeck? I’ll cross my fingers. Also, my “March Madness Marathon” goal is to finally finish the first draft of my novel. I feel better about being scared to do that, because John Steinbeck said it’s ok.


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