Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Words of a Master

John Steinbeck has always been an iconic figure for me. I don't think I've read all his novels, but I've read many of them, and loved them all. My favorite Steinbeck book is not a novel, however: it is Travels With Charley. I haven't read it in a long time, but I read it several times in my teens and early twenties, wishing I could have traded places with Charley.

I know almost nothing about Steinbeck's personal life. I avoid obtaining too much information about writers, singers or other artists whom I admire. I don't want my potentially prissy attitude about their personal foibles to detract from my admiration of their art. I only know Steinbeck from his words, which is the best way to know a writer.  I've been kind of secretly in love with the man my whole life. 

This letter from Steinbeck to his former creative writing teacher is amazing.

First of all, I love the fact that Steinbeck kept in touch with his teacher for all those years, and with such fondness. There is something magic about The Teacher who lights your fire. I suspect that there are many of us who can boast decades-long correspondence with that special teacher.  Mine passed away a few years ago. Even though after she went in to a nursing home our communication was limited to Christmas cards, I miss knowing she's in the world.

Aside from the student-teacher bond, there are many other things to ponder in this letter.
  •  The issue of artists flocking to Europe because poverty is not shameful there like it is here. (Do artists still flock to Europe?) 
  • The brutal simplicity of the "there are no rules, just write a good story" advice. 
  • The excruciating labor of doing it, that never gets any easier.  
  • The "aching urge" to write. 
  • The magical power of fiction.
Such beautiful words. Such rich images to ponder.

All of which add up to the reality that one of the masters of the craft is acknowledging to his mentor that writing is not a vocation for the weak or the timid. The fact that, after 40 years of writing masterpieces, John Steinbeck would feel fear at the prospect of beginning a new story is both terrifying and, somehow, consoling.  I am too far down the road to living a writer's life to turn back in fear, so I might as well find consolation in the knowledge that in my fear of the blank page, I have excellent company.

Please read the letter.

For more information about where this letter came from, check out Letters of Note. I look forward to my daily email forwarding letters that make me laugh, cry or -- as in the case of this one -- catch my breath and stand in awe.

Who's your iconic writer?? Favorite teacher??

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