‘By some chicanery it has become Monday.’ John Steinbeck, The East of Eden Letters.
My children have all been dispatched to school, the breakfast table has been wiped down, bread is rising, dried fruit is soaking and I can stall no longer…time to write something.
The house is almost silent but for the churning of the washing machine and the distant groan of the rubbish truck collecting the remains of Christmas. I’ve explained to the dog that it’s just me and him again.
‘Walk?’ he asked me, hopefully. Did you know that dogs can learn around 200 words?
‘Sure,’ I replied, ‘after Steinbeck. I have to get him out of my head.’
‘Boring,’ the dog has been spending too much time with the teenagers.
You remember, I mentioned that Husband, who believes his wife to be far more intellectually able than she really is, gifted me two books. The first was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (published in 1952).The second, titled Journal of a Novel (published in 1969), is a collection of the letters written by Steinbeck to his friend and editor, Pascal Covici. The interesting thing is that both books were written, in tandem and even in the same notebook. The first letter is dated January, 29, 1951 [Monday] and Steinbeck begins by thanking Pat for his gift, a large (10¾” X 14”) notebook given in anticipation of work beginning on a new novel. Steinbeck determines that he will keep a double entry system, writing his novel on the right-hand side of the book and a work diary, in the form of letters to Pat, on the left-hand side. As each section of work was completed the pages were removed and sent to Pat, usually by post, with accompanying letters.
I mimicked Steinbeck’s system; notes on the letters to the left and the novel on the right. I filled forty pages. I was enthralled.
I like to see a story unfold and I like surprises. Also, I have a stubborn independent streak and want to try things by myself before asking for help. For those reasons, I read a section of the book first and then went back to read the matching letters. In this way, I think, I didn’t spoil the book for myself but I had a supporting partner to my reading. I had a friend to turn to and say ‘do you think he means…?’ and lo and behold, my friend wrote back and told me what he thought the book was trying to say. That my friend was the author and the author was John Steinbeck turned out to be quite thrilling. Odd, I know, but true.
Here’s the thing. John Steinbeck’s letters read very much like a well-written and very nifty craft blog. He worked at his writing every weekday from 8am until 1-ish but spent the rest of his days at what I call ‘make and doing’. He clearly couldn’t resist boasting a little bit to his pal about his various projects. He orders a carpenter’s workbench and promises to build a wooden box for Pat, ‘an actual box, to put things in.’ He paints his workbench black because of the sun’s glare and then, commenting that he is, ‘never satisfied with my writing surface,’ sands it back again to bare wood.
Steinbeck’s manual labour is partly a writing tool. He relays to Pat a bit of ‘story trouble’ and adds, ‘Anyway, thinking it out I did a hell of a lot of sandpapering.’
He designs and builds a birdcage. He mentions that he is, ‘now designing a new back to the house’ and that he has ‘invented a tool rack today which is going to be the glory of the world.’
As the author approached the end of the book he wrote faster and his DIY kept pace with his writing, ‘I did well over three thousand words yesterday and built a coffee table too.’
I’ve googled but failed to find any images of Steinbeck’s handiwork which seems to me a great pity. All that remains is his knitting. Yes, knitting. John Steinbeck repeatedly refers to his novel-making as knitting. ‘I have lots of ideas,’ he writes to Pat, ‘and now I will get back to my knitting.’ Hah! I squealed with delight.
I wonder a lot about the creative mind. How does sanding or whittling help with the fabrication of a story? Why is it easier to fix your head on a problem when your hands are busy at some mindless task? And another thing: could you grade people on a scale of creativity regardless of what their particular talent or expertise happens to be? Are some people just generally creative…driven with an urge to make or improve or invent or change things?
Steinbeck writes to Pat:
‘I know you make fun of my inventions and my designs. But they are the same as writing. I come from a long line of inventors. This is in my blood. We are improvisers and will continue to be. Now I find there is a great suspicion and fear of inventors and the first attack is always based on the fact that they are crazy.’
Samuel Hamilton, the almost God-like figure in East of Eden and, as it happens, Steinbeck’s idolised Grandfather, was a stereotypical inventor. He raised his family in poverty, continuously planning and building and spending every penny earned on patent applications. And so, people thought he was crazy.
It’s funny that. You can be as creative as you like but, if you don’t make money out of it people think you are at best a failure, at worst stone mad. It’s weird or wacky to be creative just for the sake of it, to cover your house in seashells (no, I haven’t!) or maybe knit your own dishcloths but completely acceptable to ‘be a writer’ or ‘be an artist’ if you make money out of it. Granted, the amount of money someone is willing to pay for your work might be taken as a valid measure of its value but the more important thing is that, as Steinbeck points out, ‘Money always removes the charge of craziness.’
Right, so obviously handmade dishcloths aren’t Art. So, when does creativity become art? I’ve been thinking hard about this because I want to understand it. It seems to me that your (or more specifically my) average crafting, aside from being an overflow for an over-active, anxious mind, serves to fit me. I might make a hat to match my coat, I might paint a chair to match my dresser. I want to be individual and I want my surroundings to fit me well.
Just so with Steinbeck’s coffee table, with his specially designed paper-weight to fit his perfectly inclined and hand-painted writing desk.
But his art is something different. He writes again and again that ‘a man can take from this book as much as he can bring to it.’ That, I think, is the key. Art isn’t a thing that’s made to fit its creator. Art is a method of sharing an idea, a thought or maybe an emotion. There has to be a newness to it. It might be a new idea or a new way of expressing an old idea. It’s that newness which generates nervousness.
The creator has to put faith in the recipient to bring their share of understanding. Art doesn’t deliver a blow of sudden comprehension to your head. Art draws something out of you. You feel it in your chest. You draw breath, you sigh; literal oohs and aahs. Great art might blow you away but it will be your own emotion which overwhelms you.
The most moving art expresses the most universal truths, the battles that rage at the core of human souls regardless of wealth or status or education. East of Eden sets out to paint the battle between good and evil in every one of us. Steinbeck addressed the book to his sons, Tom and John, then aged just 6 and 4, hoping that, ‘perhaps by speaking directly to them I shall speak directly to other people.’
The book is oddly relaxed in tone. The more outrageous the scene, the quieter the writing becomes. Steinbeck wrote to Pat:
‘That is what I am trying to do with this whole book- to keep it in an extremely low pitch and to let the reader furnish the emotion.’
Can you see? It’s a two-way thing.
‘This is an old-fashioned novel. It will achieve any effect it has by accumulation.’
‘lead into the story so gradually…like setting a trap for a fox.’
‘I shall want to draw the reader into the personal so that he is reading about himself.’
Does it work? Beyond doubt. I spent the entire Christmas holidays trying to decide whether I am a good person (not very), a good enough person (maybe), a person as good as my very good husband thinks I am (absolutely not). I drove said Husband to whiskey-drinking.
I watched a documentary about David Bowie (it was his birthday yesterday and his anniversary is tomorrow). He commented that he aimed to give the listener fragments of a story and that each individual takes something different from it. That’s art.
‘I’m rather kind of old school, thinking that when an artist does his work it’s no longer his.’ David Bowie.
You don’t have to understand it. I think I understood Steinbeck better than Bowie. They’ve both made me draw breath this week, made me sigh and made me cry.That’s art.
Edited on Tuesday, January 10th to add Part 2.
John Steinbeck admitted in his letters to Pat Covici that there are two books within the covers of East of Eden and that they might even have been better published separately. The core of the book is a re-telling of the story of Cain and Abel. Cain ‘dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden’, was the eldest son of Adam and Eve, was the first person born and the first to kill. His younger brother Abel was the first to die. Theirs is the story of the fight between good and evil in the human soul.
Steinbeck sets the story in the Salinas Valley, California, bridging the 19th and 20th centuries and across two generations of the Trask family. We first read the story of Charles Trask and his brother Adam and then follow Adam’s sons Aron and Cal.
Parallel with this, Steinbeck tells the tale of Samuel Hamilton, a well-read and artistically inclined Irish immigrant who claims a dusty parcel of Californian land and settles down to raise a large family of Americans. Samuel’s daughter Olive marries a German called Ernest Steinbeck and they raise a son called John who is the narrator, and the author, of East of Eden. I know, it is all a bit mind-bending and I can’t remember any other author using a similar device but it works. It absolutely works.
The flesh-and-blood Hamiltons and the fictional Trasks are neighbours. Their stories lean against each other, stand apart and mingle a little. Steinbeck assures Pat Covici that ‘all the Hamilton stories are true.’ He wants to tell the story of America by creating a true picture of the Salinas Valley which he is, ‘using as a microcosm of the whole nation’ and for that reason he says, ‘I must put in all the lore and anecdote I can. And many of my family stories amount to folklore and should be used …’
So, East of Eden is a like a mixed-media image with old and very personal photographs overlaid on a painting.
The best, the most good, character in the novel is a real person. Samuel Hamilton makes people feel good, makes them feel like better people and makes them believe that the world is a better place. It was Steinbeck’s intention that Samuel be a guiding light, ‘by whom little and frightened men are guided through the darkness.’
Cathy Ames, the villain of the piece, the monster and devil incarnate, is only make-believe.
Cathy and Samuel are fire and water. They recognise each other and can’t bear to be close.
Cast and torn between these two extremes are the ordinary people. Some of them are dreamers, others are schemers. Some are blind to evil, others are drawn to badness. Some of them are Hamiltons and some of them are Trasks but they all feel like real people.
Yes, it’s all very symbolic but the weight of symbolism is balanced with good story-telling. Steinbeck knew what he was about, ‘I want to clothe my symbol people in the trappings of experience so that the symbol is discernible but not overwhelming.’
Does good triumph over evil? What do you think? Has it, in the real world? The point is not whether it did, in this story or any other. The point is not whether it will in the future. The point is that good could triumph over evil, if men so choose, it could.
‘It’s too easy to excuse yourself because of your ancestry,’ says the wisest man in the book.
‘There’s a responsibility to being a person. It’s more than just taking up space where air might be.’
This is from Steinbeck’s Nobel prize acceptance speech in 1962:
‘Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life of the whole world – of all living things. The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The test of his perfectibility is at hand. Having taken Godlike power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility we once prayed some deity might have.’
In chapter two, writing about the first pioneers to colonise America, Steinbeck writes:
‘They trusted themselves as individuals because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units – because of this they could give God their own courage and receive it back. Such things have disappeared perhaps because men do not trust themselves anymore, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.’
There it is. There is Donald Trump, sure and strong. Did you draw breath? That’s art.
But wait. Take East of Eden down from your book shelf or go to a book shop and take the book in your hands. Somehow, I feel that a portion of the power of this lies in holding a book. Find Chapter 13, part 1, and read.
These are just excerpts:
‘When our food and clothing and housing are all born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking.’
‘and men are unhappy and confused.’
‘Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man.’
‘And now the forces marshalled around the concept of the group have declared war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.’
‘And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual is the most valuable thing in the world.
And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.
And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual…I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.’
Knitting your own dishcloths might just be a tiny step in the right direction. Knitting your own dishcloths and kneading your own bread might give you time to do some hard thinking. You might stretch your mind to considering rebellion. You might be too busy thinking to worry about the great mass of people who might think you are crazy. You might become the person your Husband thinks you are.
Here are more words of wisdom from David Bowie:
‘Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.’
Because, you know, life takes courage. Responsibility takes courage. Creativity takes courage. Individuality takes courage. If you get hung up on being perfect, on playing safe, then you’ll just follow the crowd, the group, the mass. You’ll spot some strong sure man and, even if he’s wrong, you’ll hang on his coattails.
Be brave. Swim deeper. Make a splash.
‘And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.’ John Steinbeck.