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Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters…

Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969)

by John Steinbeck

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Such a great journal. I enjoyed every word. Steinbeck was certainly and interesting man. This book gives us an inside look at how he worked. Myself, not so much a plot-driven devotee, but Steinbeck clearly had a plan and he carried it out to perfection. I admire him for that and respect his process. ( )
  MSarki | Jan 23, 2016 |
I'm not a devotee of Steinbeck's work, though I have read several of his books over the years, but I have much respect for the man. My grandpa was an Okie who family ventured to California before the Great Depression fully struck, and was subject to a great deal of prejudice. Steinbeck stood up for the Okies and Arkies in a way that few did; for that, I am thankful.

It's been almost ten years since I read East of Eden. My memory of the book is sketchy, but even so, it was fascinating to read about the process behind the book. I love Steinbeck's honesty. As a writer, I am always amazed at the weird ideas people have about the process (that you only write when the mood strikes, that rough drafts are perfect, that it's easy). Steinbeck was already a successful writer as he began East of Eden, but that didn't take away from his terror. "There is nothing beyond this book--nothing follows it. It must contain all in the world I know and it must have everything in it of which I am capable--all styles, all technique, all poetry--and it must have in it a great deal of laughter."

The journal is highly readable. To me, it felt exactly like a modern author blog. He discusses the struggles in the daily writing--his hopes for the character development, the fact that his hand is callused from the pencil, his inability to write at all that day, the one time his beloved pencil sharpener actually started belching sparks and smoke--with other daily comments like a diary. He talks about going to plays and parties, his stepdaughter and young sons, and how he often needs to withdraw in order to write.

I noted dozens of inspirational quotes to type up and keep for my own future reference. When I'm feeling stressed and neurotic, it will be comforting to say, "I'm being just like Steinbeck." Good company, that. This is one of those writing books that most writers should read or keep handy, just to keep things in perspective. ( )
  ladycato | Oct 26, 2013 |

On every working day between 29 January and 1 November 1951, John Steinbeck wrote a letter to his close friend and editor at Viking Press, Pat Covici, before he began his work for the day on the manuscript of [b:East of Eden|4406|East of Eden|John Steinbeck|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1309212913s/4406.jpg|2574991]. The letters were written on the left-hand pages of the large notebook in which Steinbeck wrote - by hand, in pencil - the novel which meant most to him. Steinbeck told Covici that writing the letters was his way of "getting [his] mental arm in shape to pitch a good game".

Steinbeck's daily letters to Covici touch on a range of subjects. They describe what he intended to achieve on the day in question. They refer to his personal circumstances, in particular to his love for his third wife Elaine and his concerns regarding his young sons. The letters also describe Steinbeck's other projects: the gadgets he liked to invent, his woodwork projects (in particular a carved box he was making for Covici and in which he would ultimately give Covici the manuscript of the novel). However, the most signficant aspect of the work is the light that the letters throw on the process through which East of Eden was written, on Steinbeck's passionate devotion to the writing of the novel and on his own psychological make-up. As is fitting for a writer who was skilled at describing people and their environment, Steinbeck had insight into his thought processes and emotions. He unflinchingly described his bouts of depression and self-doubt, his periods of manic activity, the days when everything went well and the days when he had difficulty motivating himself to work.

While there is some repetition in the letters - there were days which were a lot like other days - the work is also full of insights into how Steinbeck felt, not just about the book, but about writing. For example, on 3 September 1951 he wrote:Writing is a very silly business at best. There is a certain ridiculousness about putting down a picture of life. And to add to the joke - one must withdraw from life in order to set down that picture. And third one must distort one's own way of life in order in some sense to simulate the normal in other lives. Having gone through all this nonsense, what emerges may well be the palest of reflections.... And the greatest foolishness of all lies in the fact that to do it at all, the writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true. If he does not, the work is not worth even what it might otherwise have been.
Steinbeck was not fond of professional literary critics, but he was aware that he could not control how readers would react to East of Eden, the novel which meant more to him that anything else he had written. On 10 October 1951, three weeks before he finished the manuscript, he wrote: In a short time [it] will be done and it will not be mine any more. Other people will take it over and own it and it will drift away from me as though I had never been a part of it. I dread that time because one can never pull back. [It's] like shouting good-bye to someone going off on a bus and no one can hear because of the roar of the motor.

I wish I had read this book around the same time as I listened to the audiobook of East of Eden last year, so that the details of the novel were clearer in my head. As I read, I occasionally re-read particular chapters of the novel in order to refresh my memory. However, I know that reading the novel and this book in conjunction with each other would have enriched my experience of both works. That said, I very much enjoyed the book. It is highly recommended for admirers of Steinbeck's writing in general and East of Eden in particular.

( )
  KimMR | Apr 2, 2013 |
As a fan of East of Eden and the work of John Steinbeck in general, I loved this book. There is so much insight into what I consider the most brilliant work of fiction ever crafted. With all the cuts that were made to the final product of East of Eden, it's sometimes difficult to tell whether Steinbeck was really dabbling in Postmodernism or not. Journal of Novel makes it clear that he was. And for that, I love this man.

For the writer, there are some wonderful bits of advice in Journal, but it's probably not worth reading the entire work. Essentially, Steinbeck's philosophy could be summed up as "do what you feel is right and don't give a damn what anyone says."

For the layman, there isn't much here. After all, Journal of a Novel is a series of letters written to a friend (and editor). Steinbeck repeatedly says things like "I have to go use the toilet now." Now, for me, I care. 'Cause I want to know about every bowel movement John Steinbeck had. But you, you probably don't care.

I'd only recommend this book for those who have a passion for East of Eden. It'll add some color to an already wonderful story. ( )
  chrisblocker | Mar 30, 2013 |
Read from January 17 to May 15, 2011

"...I want to write this one as though it were my last book." (quoted from page 8, February 12.)

From January 29-November 1, 1951 John Steinbeck documented the writing of East of Eden in notebooks, entries addressed to "Pat" (Pascal Covici, his friend and editor at Viking Press.) I took my time reading these letters every night just before going to sleep. East of Eden is one of my all time favorite books and it was such a treat to read these passages documenting the time he spent writing it. This book is a historical document, a primary source, therefore, a casual reader might find it confusing and boring to read about John Steinbeck's one-sided conversation with his editor, which contains odd details about aches and pains, nervous observations about personal health and concerns about family, carpentry projects, quirky habits having to do with sharpened pencils and notebooks, and an annoying wrinkle in the blotting paper on his desk. But for me, as a writer, I am able relate to this sort of stuff, especially with the joys and frustrations that go along with the process of writing a novel, the interruptions from writing because of life's events and the difficult, sometimes sluggish return to work after the interruptions were resolved. A writer often lives with a fear that something will happen to cause the book to be left unfinished or somehow destroyed. The entries are overflowing with the knowledge that not everyone is going to like the book at the same time that he knows there will be people who will love it...it's an emotional see-saw, at one moment he says "Oh the Hell with it", and the next, he's agonizing with self doubt.

"You know just as well as I do that this book is going to catch the same kind of hell that all the others did and for the same reasons. It will not be what anyone expects and so the expecters will not like it. And until it gets to people who don't expect anything and are just willing to go along with the story, no one is likely to like this book." (quoted from page 26, March 8, Thursday.) I couldn't have said that better myself!

Writing a book is a process that is all consuming, the line between dreams and realities becomes so fuzzy while in the thick of it, a writer can be easily lost, caught up in the tides of emotions, everything is on at full blast and wide open, it takes a special person to accomplish the writing of a book, seeing it through to the end and remaining consistent and faithful to the inspiration, at the same time letting it go its own way...and it takes a special spouse to put up with the writer while they go through the process. (Kudos to Elaine!)

It is all very strange...this is a book for the writer to read, to gain reassurance that you're not nuts, and all of this is part of the package of being a writer. ( )
1 vote LauraJWRyan | May 21, 2011 |
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January 29, 1951 [Monday]  Dear Pat:  How did the time pass and how did it grow so late.
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