Saturday, March 27, 2010


I’m big on biographies and non-fiction accounts in general. I like people who don’t quite have it all together, yet seem to make out on some higher level or at the very least, have a profound impact on others.

Several months ago, I read a biography on John Steinbeck. It brought me back to required reading in High School with books like The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Do I like everything he wrote? Hell no. My point is the man put some thought into his writing and refused to rest on his laurels. To illustrate, below is a letter he wrote in reference to style:

"When a writer starts in very young, his problems apart from story are those of technique, of words, of rhythms, of story methods, of transition, of characterization, of ways of creating effects. But after years of trial and error most of these things are solved and one gets what is called a style. It is then that a story conceived falls into place neatly and is written down having the indelible personal hallmark of the writer. This is thought to be an ideal situation. And the writer who is able to achieve this is thought to be very fortunate.

I have only just arrived at a sense of horror about this technique. If I think of a story, it is bound automatically to fall into my own personal long struggle for technique. But the penalty is terrible. The tail of the kite is designed to hold and in many cases drags it to earth. Having a technique, is it not possible that the technique not only dictates how a story is to be written but also what story is to be written? In other words, style or technique may be a straitjacket which is the destroyer of the writer. It does seem to be true that when it becomes easy to write the writing is not likely to be any good. Facility can be the greatest danger in the world. But is there any alternative? Suppose I want to change my themes and my approach. Will not my technique, which has become almost unconscious, warp and drag me around to the old attitudes and subtly force the new work to be the old?

I want to dump my technique, to tear it right down to the ground and start all over."

I read and re-read this passage. I put into context the MAJOR player Steinbeck was at the time. It didn't matter. He was ready to take a mutinous stance in regards to his previous execution of the craft. He knew he was liable for the words he put on paper. He knew he was shortchanging himself, and his readers, if he didn’t take new chances. If not prepared, he was at least willing to do something about it.

What it says to me is when something you’re writing doesn’t sound good, look good or feel good, try another way. Yeah, you could continue to mope around your house like a pansy with their diapers full of crap. Instead, how about re-thinking what you’ve been doing...or not doing. Lengthen a sentence. Shorten a sentence. Build your vocabulary. Buy a bad ass thesauruses like The Synonym Finder. Re-read your favorite authors. Put one of their books in front of you, type out a paragraph or two.

Do all of it.