Working Days

Even though we all work in our own way, I’ve always found it interesting to learn how other writers approach the craft. Thus it was with happy surprise that I came upon a reference to the account John Steinbeck kept in his journal of the writing of East of Eden, which was published under the name The Journal of a Novel. (I learned of it at the blog Many Energies. Head over there and spread some love, won’t you?) I’d read East of Eden many years ago, and I don’t remember liking it very much, but I’ve liked other works by Steinbeck, so I was eager to learn how he did things.

Instead, however, I picked up a copy of Working Days, which is his account of the writing of The Grapes of Wrath, a novel I’ve read (and re-read) much more recently and for which I have a great liking.

I wish I could say the same for Working Days. I think there are times when you must let a great person have his or her allure and not peak into the mechanism too much.

As an instructional guide, even as an opportunity for insight, Working Days did not deliver. It is mostly daily journal entries of a couple hundred words speaking about each day’s writing ambition. Steinbeck set himself a deadline for writing the novel and then castigated himself in the journal for missing a day’s productivity or complained about the house being built next door or loved and lamented the stellar lists of visitors he had (including Charlie Chaplin and Carl Sandburg). He writes that the novel must be good, it must be the best writing he can do, and then he follows with despair that he is not talented enough to write it. He obsesses about his word count yet repeatedly says how much he loves the pen he used to write it all.

<<point at which I lost my connection and the rest of this post that I hadn’t yet saved, thus excusing any incoherency>>

That makes up about two-thirds of the book. The last third is how he grapples with the success of the novel, which is to say, he seems to hate it. He makes a lot of money, but he claims to resent the fame. Everyone wants a piece of him: autographs, speeches, endorsements. They want to publish his early writing, and then they want to publish his letters saying they can’t publish his early writing. Yes, I’m sure success is the bitch goddess everyone says it is, but Steinbeck lays it on too thick.

I can’t speak for The Journal of a Novel, but I certainly can’t recommend Working Days, at least not for someone who is looking for writing insights. I’m sure that Steinbeck scholars found the book informative and even fascinating, but I found it tedious.

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4 Comments on “Working Days

  1. Pete Says:

    I browsed both books at the bookstore across the street from my office (now defunct) with both going unbought by me. I was intrigued by the behind-the-scenes accounts of the creation of those novels, but never pulled the trigger on the journals. Now, despite my great admiration for The Grapes Of Wrath, I see that I probably wasn’t missing much.

    Incidentally, I just started keeping a journal that follows the progress of my latest writing project. But seeing that even the great Steinbeck couldn’t make such a journal compelling, I’m wondering if I should even bother entertaining the fantasy of it being published someday.

  2. mastbaker Says:

    Thanks for the link. Too bad Working Days wasn’t so hot. I found Journal of a Novel interesting not for any real instructional purpose, but as a glimpse into what it took for Steinbeck mentally to write East of Eden. Like you say about Working Days, he’s always going on about his Other Life, as if he had to clear his head of it before he could get the actual writing done. Both of those journal books were published after both Steinbeck and his editor, Pascal Covici, were dead. (I think. I know Steinbeck was dead, at least.) Covici’s wife was the force behind their publication. So not originally intended for public use, or for anything except to gear up for writing. It’s that that makes them interesting to me.

  3. J.M. Reep Says:

    It would have been interesting to see Steinbeck (or any great author, really) write a blog. I suppose the reason why Steinbeck’s journal wasn’t that interesting was because it wasn’t intended/available for an audience. If Steinbeck knew for certain that he’d have visitors to his blog every day waiting for his next post, he might have had a lot of very interesting things to say about his life, his work, fame, current events, etc.

  4. paullamb Says:

    I think Dickens would have been an avid blogger. Imagine the insights he could have provided, not only to his writing, but to his culture/society at the time. Thoreau has effectively become a blogger since his journals are being posted as though they were a daily blog.

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