Letter writing is nothing if not a lost art.
In an age of tweeting, tumblr-ing, updating statuses and texting, when was the last time you sat down and wrote an honest to goodness letter?
The last I have any memory of writing was when I was in boarding school, and my mother and I would write to each other. I wish I still had those letters, I can only imagine that they would have become a beautiful memento in years to come.
Prior to that, my friends and I in Primary School were avid letter writers. We wrote to one another constantly, speaking of school, love, life and our friendships, which were subject to constant adjustment.
In keeping with A Month of Steinbeck, I thought I would share some of the letters written by John. His style and tone in letter writing is different to the one captured in his novels, but it is fascinating and brilliant and bound to make you reach for the pen and ink.
John Steinbeck to his former room-mate and friend,
This loss of contact has been curious. I hope that now it is over. Enclosed is a letter I wrote to you a long time ago and never had your address to send it.
This condition goes on, one of slow disintegration. It will not last a great time more, I think. For a long time I could not work, but now I have developed calluses and have gone back to work. It seems heartless when I think of it all. You are much more complex than I am. I work because I know it gives me pleasure to work. It is a simple as that and I don’t require any other reasons. I am losing a sense of self to a marked degree and that is a pleasant thing. A couple of years ago I realized that I was not the material of which great artists are made and that I was rather glad I wasn’t. And since then I have been happier simply to do the work and to take the reward at the end of every day that is given for a day of honest work. I grow less complicated all the time and that is a joy to me. The forces that used to tug in various directions have all started to pull in one. I have a book to write. I think about it for a while and then I write it. There is nothing more.When it is done I have little interest in it. By the time one comes out I am usually tied up in another.
I don’t think you will like my late work. It leaves realism farther and farther behind. I never had much ability for nor faith nor belief in realism. It is just a form of fantasy as nearly as I could figure. Boileau was a wiser man that Mencken. The festered characters of Faulkner are not very interesting to me unless their festers are heroic. This may be silly but it is what I am. There are streams in man more profound and dark and strong than the libido of Freud. Jung’s libido is closer but still inadequate. I take pleasure in my structures but I don’t think them very important except in the doing.
Tillie died you know and now we have another dog named Joddi. An Irish terrier and beauty. We like him. He is one of the toughest dogs I have ever seen although only a little over six months old.
Your preoccupation with old age would be shocked out of you by seeing what I see every half hour all day, true age, true decay that is age. A human body that was all dead except for a tiny flickering light that comes on and then seems to go out and then flickers on again. Our life has been uprooted of course, but that doesn’t matter if I can find my escape in work.
I have a book coming out in a couple of months. I don’t think I would read it if I were you. It might shock you to see the direction I have taken. Always prone to the metaphysical I have headed more and more in that direction.
I have to go to the office now and write a few figures in a ledger. Then I will come home and to my afternoon’s work. I’ll write again in a little while. And let me hear from you again old man.
John Steinbeck to his former professor of creative writing, Edith Mirrielees.
Dear Edith Mirrielees:
I am delighted that your volume Story Writing is going into a paperback edition. It will reach a far larger audience, and that is a good thing. It may not teach the reader how to write a good story, but it will surely help him to recognize one when he reads it.
Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in your class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyed and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb from you the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories.
You cancelled this illusion very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, you said, was to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, you told us, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.
The basic rule you gave us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from writer to reader and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, you said, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and technique at all—so long as it was effective.
As a subhead to this rule, you maintained that it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of a story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three or six or ten thousand words.
So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that you set us on the desolate lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades you gave my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterwards upheld your side, not mine.
It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done, thanks to your training. Why could I not do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.
It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who is not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.
I wonder whether you will remember one last piece of advice you gave me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic twenties and I was going out into that world to try to be a writer.
You said, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”
It wasn’t too long afterwards that the depression came down. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame any more. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely you were right about one thing, Edith. It took a long time—a very long time. And it is still going on and it has never got easier. You told me it wouldn’t.
John Steinbeck to an old (former) friend, George Albee.
The reason for your suspicion is well founded. This has been a difficult and unpleasant time. There has been nothing good about it. In this time my friends have rallied around, all except you. Every time there has been a possibility of putting a bad construction on anything I have done, you have put such a construction.
Some kind friend has told me about it every time you have stabbed me in the back and that whether I wanted to know it or not. I didn’t want to know it really. If such things had been reported as coming from more than one person it would be easy to discount the whole thing but there has been only one source. Now I know that such things grow out of an unhappiness in you and for a long time I was able to reason so and to keep on terms of some kind of amicability. But gradually I found I didn’t trust you at all, and when I knew that then I couldn’t be around you any more. It became obvious that anything I said or did in your presence or wrote to you would be warped viciously and repeated and then the repetition was repeated to me and the thing was just too damned painful. I tried to sidestep, just to fade out of your picture. But that doesn’t work, either.
I’d like to be friends with you, George, but I can’t if I have to wear a mail shirt the whole time. I wish to God your unhappiness could find some other outlet. But I can’t consider you a friend when out of every contact there comes some intentionally wounding thing. This has been the most difficult time in my life.
I’ve needed help and trust and the benefit of the doubt, because I’ve tried to beat the system which destroys every writer, and from you have come only wounds and kicks in the face. And that is the reason and I think you always knew it was the reason.
And now if you want to quarrel, it will at least be an honest quarrel and not boudoir pin pricking.
John Steinbeck to his son, Thom Steinbeck.
This is probably one of Steinbeck’s most famous letters, a touching homage to both the first love felt by a teenage boy, and the deep love that exists between father and son. I wonder how many fathers today would be able to write to their sons so honestly and without reserve.
We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.
First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.
Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.
But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.
Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.
The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.
If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.
Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.
It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.
Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.
We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.
And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
Whatever you are doing today, whatever your plans, why don’t you take five minutes to sit down with a pen and paper and write a letter to a loved one?
Pour your heart out on paper, put it in an envelope and post it.
Even if you see that person every day.
Imagine how incredible it would be to find a hand-written letter from a friend amongst the junk mail and bills that all too often clutter our letter boxes.