[Originally posted on my previous website, Michael dot Sirois dot com]
John Steinbeck agreed to be interviewed for the Paris Review in 1969 by Nathaniel Benchley, son of Robert Benchley and father of Peter Benchley (there are some writing genes in that family). When the time came, though, he was too sick to be interviewed. The magazine published a collection of quotes and selections from Steinbeck’s writings and memoirs instead. Here is what he had to say about “getting started.”
It is usual that the moment you write for publication — I mean one of course — one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.
Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock — the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.
- Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
- Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
- Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person — a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
- If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it — bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
- Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
- If you are using dialogue — say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
Do you agree or disagree with Steinbeck? Tell me about it below.
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