Some Ways to Get Started, Courtesy of John Steinbeck

When it came to getting started, there were a few things John Steinbeck did to keep from, as he put it, going nuts.

He had a fear of putting down the first line. But he had “learned long ago that you cannot tell how you will end by how you start.”

So first, he advised, let go of the idea that you are going to finish. It’s rotten to stare down 400 blank pages and tell yourself you are the one who must fill them. “Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day,” he once told a friend.

And when you’re writing that page, do it fast and do it free. Take the whole idea and throw it right down on paper. For Mr. Steinbeck, the paper was yellow pads and the words were thrown down in nice dark pencil.

As you’re writing fast and free, save the attack of edits, scrub ups, and tidying for later. Even though he threw away much of what he wrote – four-fifths of the East of Eden manuscript – he thought rewriting before all the words were first written was an excuse for not continuing. “It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with material.”

Looming over on the other side of unconsciousness was self-consciousness, which can choke the life right out of art. Mr. Steinbeck knew too well that when writing for publication or a large and faceless audience, a person can “stiffen in exactly the same way one does for a photograph.”

For that, he prescribed writing to someone. Real or imagined, but just one single person. Slap a face on the faceless, shrink them down to human scale, and tell them your story, one person to another.

But Mr. Steinbeck knew no one method would work for everyone. The process of creating, after all, was one of mystery and magic, not recipes and formulas. Especially for Mr. Steinbeck who avowed that he “refused to be predictable.”

The closest you could come to a formula, he thought, was in the urge of the creator to convey something he or she believed important to the reader, to the world.

To be sure, beginning a story still scared Mr. Steinbeck. But he had found these ways to work with the fear so that he could start writing into the mystery, into the magic. Into conveying what was in him to convey.

The Lightning Notes is funded solely by kind donors. If something here strikes you, I’d be grateful if you’d consider donating. Click to Donate!