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.
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??