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a letter from John Steinbeck

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  #1  
Old 10-19-2011, 12:10 AM
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Default a letter from John Steinbeck


Hi Guys,
I came across this letter in my old files and thought some of you might be interested in reading it. It gave me a little heart back in the late sixties, I hope it does the same for you.

Dear Writer: Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is 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, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.
The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all - so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, 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 our 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, we were set 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 given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher's side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.
It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then 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 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. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.
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 not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.
I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic '20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.
I was told, "It's going to take a long time, and you haven't got 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 afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time - a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.
She told me it wouldn't.

1963


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  #2  
Old 10-19-2011, 01:47 AM
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I think he might be on to something.
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Old 10-19-2011, 03:16 AM
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I love it. Especially this:

"If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another."
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Old 10-19-2011, 04:53 AM
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Me too. This stood out to me in particular -

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 not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.
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Old 10-20-2011, 11:10 AM
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Really?

...the writer who not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.
That sounds like utter bullshit to me.
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Old 10-20-2011, 12:51 PM
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Originally Posted by Mike C View Post
Really?



That sounds like utter bullshit to me.
Why? I don't know about the tantalising end of the spectrum but I get scared shitless when I start a new story. Maybe I should only have quoted the scared bit....
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Old 10-31-2011, 01:57 AM
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Originally Posted by Ethan Blake View Post
Hi Guys,
I came across this letter in my old files and thought some of you might be interested in reading it. It gave me a little heart back in the late sixties, I hope it does the same for you.

Dear Writer: Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is 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, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.
The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all - so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, 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 our 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, we were set 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 given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher's side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.
It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then 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 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. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.
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 not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.
I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic '20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.
I was told, "It's going to take a long time, and you haven't got 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 afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time - a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.
She told me it wouldn't.

1963


Complete rubbish.

When I was in college, my lit teacher said that all stories can be reduced to exactly one theme.

Movies anyway, follow a consistent structure. And the consistent theme seems to be liberty.

You've got the case as per http://storyfanatic.com/articles/sto...-heros-journey

The above link complains that the hero's journey is not detailed enough. But then Kal comes along with more detail than seems possible at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

Steinbeck's words may apply to the situation you create or the style with which to write it. But not the structure.
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Old 10-31-2011, 03:01 AM
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Hey Olivia,
quote;Olivia[When I was in college, my lit teacher said that all stories can be reduced to exactly one theme.

What was that theme?
Best regards
D
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Old 10-31-2011, 06:46 AM
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Eh, ignore her, David. It's just more posturing bullshit from someone who thinks they know more about writing than everyone else put together.
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Old 10-31-2011, 12:26 PM
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Yes god forbid Steinbeck would have an idea about how to write.

It doesn't reflect a lot of my own feelings, but I love reading how other writers go about their process.

For me it isn't scary, or tantalising it is just fun, but depression has never been a serious part of my life.
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Old 10-31-2011, 03:45 PM
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Why would you equate scary with depression?
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Old 10-31-2011, 03:48 PM
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It was a misreading on my part sorry - I was tired when I read it. Of course he means 'the depression.'
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Old 10-31-2011, 03:50 PM
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Haha. No worries. Been there a few times. Tired that is, not in America's Great Depression.
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Old 11-02-2011, 06:18 PM
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Originally Posted by Olivia View Post
Complete rubbish.

When I was in college, my lit teacher said that all stories can be reduced to exactly one theme.

Movies anyway, follow a consistent structure. And the consistent theme seems to be liberty.

You've got the case as per

The above link complains that the hero's journey is not detailed enough. But then Kal comes along with more detail than seems possible at

Steinbeck's words may apply to the situation you create or the style with which to write it. But not the structure.
Structure, smucture, theme shmeme. Seriously, some of the best stories I've ever read had the weirdest structure ever. I like stories that break the rules, that make make the world new. Suckerpunch was an awesome movie in my opinion, and it followed NOTHING that could be considered a common structure. And I see no differences between movies, books, or any other medium. A paintbrush is what it is, and a painting that as well. A storyteller is just that, and a story is a story.

Science has taught us to look at the parts of things, and determine the value of the whole based upon the sum of those parts. But a human child can be broken into basic chemicals. But the miracle exists in an infinitely diverse arrangement that can only be reproduced in one basic way: the joining of two beings into one. I am not my bones, a story is not it's theme. I am not my blood, a movie is not it's actors. Without these things I am dead, yet they do not rule my mind.
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Old 02-22-2012, 09:43 PM
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I am proud to be a Steinbeck fan. One thing is clear from his letter and that is every writer must find his own style. Steinbeck may not be everyone's cup of tea, still, i wonder if those who say this letter or portions of it is bulls$&@, have these people taken a nobel prize for literature home, banked the prize money and spent it? Steinbeck had his day, sure, and those who don't understand what he is trying to part with some well earned knowledge will probably never be published. Nothing he says is cast in stone. Writing is a personal thing. He says find your own way and reap the rewards. He does not say anything about doing it his way. He knew better than that.
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Old 02-25-2012, 04:05 PM
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Thanks for sharing. It's always nice to be reminded that even the greats find writing difficult and scary at times.
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Old 02-25-2012, 08:15 PM
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Steinbeck is just fracken great.
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Old 04-04-2012, 05:42 AM
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Leave it to Steinbeck to intellectualize creative writing. I have enjoyed some of his novels, but often found them too deep in character and shallow in imagination. He is using a lot of words to say that there is no "right" way to create a good story. Everyone will have their own method that works for them, I guess. It sort of supports my own 'fly by the seat of my pants' method. I would never try to minimize his contribution to literature. Was this a personal letter to you, Ethan?
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Old 04-04-2012, 07:54 AM
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Hey She1234,
No, I unfortunately never met nor corresponded with Steinbeck, I am just a great admirer of his work.
Best regards
D
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Old 04-04-2012, 10:32 AM
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Originally Posted by heysamsays View Post
Thanks for sharing. It's always nice to be reminded that even the greats find writing difficult and scary at times.
I second this. I often forget that we're all on the same planet, all made of the same junk.
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Old 04-22-2012, 11:20 AM
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It's the most amazing thing to read what other successful writers have to say. I loved the inspiration behind his words, and his wonderful ending. The ending, to me, is the most special part of any piece. I learned something meaningful from the letter above, and I thank you for sharing it with us. It's so special to ask yourself, "Okay, what can I give to my readers?" It's interesting for beginners, like me, to know that it never gets easier. Personally, it makes me feel safe knowing that even the best of authors still struggle. I'm not alone.
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Old 04-24-2012, 03:09 PM
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I am never scared when starting to write a story. I am, however, often lost, and don't know where to begin. It has sometimes taken me months just to get the first page down just the way I want it.
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