How Steinbeck Used the Diary as a Tool of Discipline, a Hedge Against Self-Doubt, and a Pacemaker for the Heartbeat of Creative Work
by Maria Popova
“Just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.”
Many celebrated writers have championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but no one has put the diary to more impressive practical use in the creative process than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968). In the spring of 1938, shortly after performing one of the greatest acts of artistic courage — that of changing one’s mind when a creative project is well underway, as Steinbeck did when he abandoned a book he felt wasn’t living up to his humanistic duty — he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life. The public fruit of this labor would become the 1939 masterwork The Grapes of Wrath — a title his politically radical wife, Carol Steinbeck, came up with after reading The Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Howe. The novel earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and was a cornerstone for his Nobel Prize two decades later, but its private fruit is in many ways at least as important and morally instructive.
Alongside the novel, Steinbeck also began keeping a diary, eventually published as Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — a remarkable living record of his creative journey, in which this extraordinary writer tussles with excruciating self-doubt (exactly the kind Virginia Woolf so memorably described) but plows forward anyway, with equal parts gusto and grist, driven by the dogged determination to do his best with the gift he has despite his limitations. His daily journaling becomes a practice both redemptive and transcendent.
Steinbeck had only two requests for the diary — that it wouldn’t be made public in his lifetime, and that it should be made available to his two sons so they could “look behind the myth and hearsay and flattery and slander a disappeared man becomes and to know to some extent what manner of man their father was.” It stands, above all, as a supreme testament to the fact that the sole substance of genius is the daily act of showing up.
Steinbeck captures this perfectly in an entry that applies just as well to any field of creative endeavor:
In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I feel like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.
The journal thus becomes at once a tool of self-discipline (he vowed to write in it every single weekday, and did, declaring in one of the first entries: “Work is the only good thing.”), a pacing mechanism (he gave himself seven months to complete the book, anticipated it would actually take only 100 days, and finished it in under five months, averaging 2,000 words per day, longhand, not including the diary), and a sounding board for much-needed positive self-talk in the face of constant doubt (“I am so lazy and the thing ahead is so very difficult,” he despairs in one entry; but he assures himself in another: “My will is low. I must build my will again. And I can do it.”) Above all, it is a tool of accountability to keep him moving forward despite life’s litany of distractions and responsibilities. “Problems pile up so that this book moves like a Tide Pool snail with a shell and barnacles on its back,” he writes, and yet the essential thing is that despite the problems, despite the barnacles, it does move. He captures this in one of his most poignant entries, shortly before completing the first half of the novel:
Every book seems the struggle of a whole life. And then, when it is don — pouf. Never happened. Best thing is to get the words down every day. And it is time to start now.
A few days later, he spirals into self-doubt again:
My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.
Indeed, upon starting the diary, Steinbeck is clear about its disciplining purpose and its role as a reminder this incremental daily progress, often slow and small, is precisely what produces the greater whole. In one of the first entries in early June, he writes:
This is the longest diary I ever kept. Not a diary of course but an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel. If a day is skipped it will show glaringly on this record and there will be some reason given for the slip.
Steinbeck’s commitment to discipline isn’t mere moral vanity or fetishism of productivity — his is an earnest yearning to create the greatest work of his life, the height of what he as a conscious and creative human being is capable. In one of the early entries, he resolves:
This must be a good book. It simply must. I haven’t any choice. It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted — slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges. And I can do it. I feel very strong to do it.
But per Dani Shapiro’s astute distinction between confidence and courage, this is a statement of the latter, the truer virtue — Steinbeck is well aware of everything that might derail his efforts, vexations both external and internal, and yet he decides to exert himself anyway, to be wholehearted about the endeavor despite a profound lack of confidence. Here is courage, alive and throbbing, from another of the early entries:
All sorts of things might happen in the course of this book but I must not be weak. This must be done. The failure of will even for one day has a devastating effect on the whole, far more important than just the loss of time and wordage. The whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language. And sadly enough, if any of the discipline is gone, all of it suffers.
So single-minded is his sense of purpose that in one entry he declares:
Once this book is done I won’t care how soon I die, because my major work will be over.
And in another:
When I am all done I shall relax but not until then. My life isn’t very long and I must get one good book written before it ends.
But some days, his resolve barely overpowers his self-doubt:
If only I could do this book properly it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book. But I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. I’ll just have to work from a background of these. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty it is all I can expect of my poor brain — never temper a word to a reader’s prejudice, but bend it like putty for his understanding.
And some, the self-doubt becomes completely overwhelming:
If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.
On others, he is able to recognize the doubt but not buy into it:
For some reason I’m slightly skittish. That does not always mean anything. I’ll just take a running dive at it and set down what happens.
This, in a way, is the journal’s most emboldening quality — it is almost a Buddhist scripture, decades before Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, as Steinbeck faces the ebb and flow of experience. He feels his feelings of doubt fully, lets them run through him, and yet maintains a higher awareness that they are just that: feelings, not Truth.
Still, most striking and yet most strangely assuring of all — especially to those also laboring in the seething cauldron of uncertainty that is creative work — is Steinbeck’s chronic and acute case of Impostor Syndrome. Even though he had reached both critical and financial success with his earlier work, he seems not only mistrustful but even contemptuous of that success, seeing in it a source not of pride but of shame. In an early journal, he writes:
For the moment now the financial burdens have been removed. But it is not permanent. I was not made for success. I find myself now with a growing reputation. In many ways it is a terrible thing… Among other things I feel that I have put something over. That this little success of mine is cheating.
He is extremely harsh on himself, to a point of letting his suspicion of his own success swell into suspicion of his personal valor and the basic goodness of his character:
I must be sure to choose which is love and which sorryness. I’m not a very good person. Sometimes generous and good and kind and other times mean and short.
Like most artists, he repeatedly questions the validity of his art and his qualification for it:
Taylor [Ed. — next-door neighbor] just rakes his yard and putters. But he would probably do a better job of this than I am doing. More ship-shape. I wish I were he sometimes. Just rake the yard and mix a little cement. How did I ever get started on this writing business anyway? To work.
Even as he nears completion of the novel — remember, one that would win a Pulitzer and earn Steinbeck the Nobel Prize — he still mistrusts its merit and his talent:
This book has become a misery to me because of my inadequacy.
Shortly before beginning The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck captures in another journal the fake-it-till-you-make-it nature of self-salvation — of incredulously pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps despite a grave sense of insufficiency, of being a fraud about to be found out — and even anthropomorphizes the journal itself, addressing its pages with the same conflictedness with which he beholds his success:
I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me. I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now. That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me. You pages — ten of you — you are the dribble cup — you are the cloth to wipe up the vomit. Maybe I can get these fears and disgusts on you and then burn you up. Then maybe I won’t be so haunted. Have to pretend it’s that way anyhow.
He is especially mistrustful of public acclaim and the complacency it breeds:
Strange thing honor. The most sapping thing in the world.
Indeed, he measures his success not by income or acclaim but by the day’s work. In an entry from the beginning of the diary, he marvels at the enterprise and lays out its objectives:
Here is the diary of a book and it will be interesting to see how it works out. I have tried to keep diaries before but they don’t work out because of the necessity to be honest. In matters where there is no definite truth, I gravitate toward the opposite. Sometimes where there is a definite truth, I am revolted by its smugness and do the same. In this however, I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day.
Steinbeck is equally unperturbed by the commercial prospects of the finished product — it is the process that he extolls above all else, as a moral necessity:
Don’t know who will publish my book. Don’t know at all. No reason to let it slide though. Must keep at it. Necessary.
That process, for him, is fueled by what Anne Lamott would call the “bird by bird” approach to writing some decades later. The journal then becomes a pacing mechanism. A month into the work, Steinbeck writes:
I wonder whether I will ever finish this book. And of course I’ll finish it. Just work a certain length of time and it will get done poco a poco. Just do the day’s work.
As he nears the finish line, he is even more certain of this incremental reach for greatness:
I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.
In an entry that calls to mind Mary Oliver — “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue,” she wrote — Steinbeck reasons with himself to find a healthier pace and rhythm:
Must slow down and take it easier. Saturday had a feeling of exhaustion near to collapse. I guess I’d been working too hard. It’s not the amount of work but the almost physical drive that goes into it that seems to make the difference. I should take it a little easier or I won’t be finishing. I have just a page or so over 100 typescript pages done out of 600. I have five times as much work left to do as I have done already, so I must conserve strength because I do want to do this novel and finish it this time. Must get no fatal feelings about it.
A few days later, he paces himself again:
Think. Think tonight and tomorrow work harder but get sleep tonight. Need sleep.
And yet he is well aware that moderation is not among his talents:
I am simply incapable of working any way but hard and fast. That is the only way I can make it.
When he finishes the first section of the book, jubilant, he rewards himself with a rare period of rest:
And now Book One is done — rhyme, rhyme. And I am going to take Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday off.
One of the most heartening aspects of the diary is that it isn’t a log of the perfection of genius but a deeply assuring record of a flawed human being’s repeated micro-failures, followed by repeated returns to discipline. In one entry, he observes with equal parts incredulous marvel and dismay:
Although I got up early this morning I’m late getting to work and I don’t in the least know why.
In another, he laments:
Today much to my disgust the time has slipped away.
And then, he quickly exhorts himself, as he often does in the diary, which becomes a catalog of productivity mantras and positive self-talk out of doubt’s abyss:
Now to work god damn it and different work. Must get to it.
Particularly of note is Steinbeck’s relationship with distraction, which encompasses everything outside the work — both positive and negative interferences. Life itself is a distraction from the living world he is writing into existence — visits from friends (“Sue and Bob showed up this morning. Had to kick them out. Simply can’t have people around on working days.”), outings on the town (“Good time but Jesus how the work suffers.”), rest periods (“Always on week ends I have the feeling of wasted time.”), his own body (“I’m a little sick today… It is time to go to work and that is all there is to it.”), the dentist (“I go to the dentist at four. After which digression, get back to work.”), and even something as neutral as the seasonality of summer (“Exciting but I can’t allow excitement. Leave that for this winter.”). The diary becomes his voice of reason, in which he is constantly counseling himself on retaining focus, as he does in this entry from late August:
I must re-establish the discipline. Must get tough. So many attractive things are happening that it is difficult.
In another entry, penned shortly before he headed into town for a rodeo, Steinbeck urges himself:
Must be sure not to drink too much.
And yet he fails, then self-flagellates for the failure, writing the next day:
Only a quarter page. Rodeo blues and weakness… Drank lots of whiskey and had a fair time. Empty feeling, empty show. Same enthusiasm circus had whips up… And now home with a little stomach ache that doesn’t come from the stomach. Terrible feeling of lostness and loneliness.
But he manages, always, to get back on the bull –a constant dance of discipline and distraction that recurs throughout the diary. The next day, he writes:
Yesterday was a bust and I’m sorry but I think today will be all right.
In another entry, he chastises himself capitally — “Big Lazy Time” — and bemoans the fissures of his willpower:
Demoralization complete and seemingly unbeatable. So many things happening that I can’t not be interested.
Well past the midpoint of the book, he decries the external strain on the internal process:
Was ever a book written under greater difficulty?
But he is also well aware of his own responsibility, far from the illusion that external conditions alone determine the course of the work:
I’m afraid for this book, really afraid. Part of the difficulty lies in all the shooting at me, but the other half lies within myself.
In another entry, the dual pull of exasperation and commitment accelerates:
Always something. Just more this time. I can do it and I will do it, by God. It is just the discipline that is all. I’m wasting time today and I don’t care much. Everything goes in circles and I must think WORK.
Indeed, the diary becomes as much a tool of discipline as one of self-forgiveness. One day, he gives himself permission for diversion:
I’m dawdling today… I don’t care if I do dawdle some.
But if there is one lesson to be found in this difficult tango between distraction and discipline, it’s that half the work is abating distraction and the other half not becoming so preoccupied with abating it that the effort itself becomes a distraction device. (After all, E.B. White put it best: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”) At one point, Steinbeck becomes particularly preoccupied with the distracting presence of sound. In mid-June, he despairs:
After spending nearly seven thousand dollars to be alone and quiet, the neighbors run their radio all day and I get the benefit of it. Carol can hear them reading their letters to each other. We may have to move from this beautiful place.
But Steinbeck seems fully conscious of the admonition at the heart of White’s proclamation. In another entry, he writes:
It is particularly fine today because the noise next door has stopped at least for the moment. No cement mixer, or pounding on pipe or things like that. Almost too good to be true. It would be funny if the absence of noise made it hard. It won’t. It is delicious this silence. Absolutely delicious.
In some entries, he goes through the entire cycle of self-doubt, self-consolation, and crystalline awareness of the whole experience in a single stream-of-consciousness paragraph. Here is one from September 7, about a month away from finishing:
Dreamy sleep and coughing from too much smoking and confused by too many things happening and pretty worn out from too long work on manuscript. Have to cut down smoking or something. I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too. I’ve wanted so badly for it to be good. If it isn’t, I’m afraid I’m through in more ways than one. Carol is working too hard now, too. And I’ve been with this book so long now that I don’t know much about it, I’m afraid. Well — have to take that chance. After all, if only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves. I wish I could do that. I wish I would write only one page a day but I can’t. Got to go on at this rate or suffer for it. It must go on. I can’t stop.
Indeed, he frequently turns to the diary as a form of self-soothing, as much a mechanism for mobilization as one for calming himself:
This book is my sole responsibility and I must stick to it and nothing more. This book is my life now or must be. When it is done, then will be the time for another life. But, not until it is done. And the other lives have begun to get in. There is no doubt of that. That is why I am taking so much time in this diary this morning — to calm myself. My stomach and my nerves are screaming merry hell in protest against the inroads. I won’t be glad when it is done so why try to hurry it done? Now, I hope I calm down enough to start work again.
Underpinning all his practical frustrations and commitment to the writing process is Steinbeck’s larger philosophical awareness of the flash of presence we call life and the way in which we so often mistake the doing for the being:
So many things are happening. This is probably the high point of my life if I only knew it.
He comes to use the diary the way David Lynch uses meditation — as a moral center and an anchor of creative purpose:
When I think how I am not following orders to do what people think I should do, I am scared, but then I think that it is my own work, if anything, that will be remembered. I can’t work for other people. I don’t do good work with their ideas. So I’ll go on with my own.
And yet even as he approaches the end, his self-doubt remains as unshakable as his commitment to finish:
I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing — it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do. Now to work on it.