The Grapes of Wrath and the Journals Behind the Book

Image via The Guardian

The Grapes of Wrath is another one of those American classics that I somehow avoided reading in high school. Getting to read all of these canonical tomes as an adult has, thus far, not proved to be a disappointment. The Grapes of Wrath is a remarkable timeless piece of work, relevant as ever in 2015. And the direct prose, seasoned with occasional King James Bible lyricism, reads as well as ever.

Not that readers need some guy on the internet to tell them that this book is good. But a less obvious suggestion than “I also think that this thing that everyone thinks is good, is good” that I highly recommend, especially for writers, is reading “Working Days: A Journal Of The Grapes Of Wrath”. This collection of journals that Steinbeck kept during the process of writing this novel centers around the daily log he kept, in which he made an entry every day he wrote. It also contains the journal entries he made during editing and the process of publication, as well as extensive endnotes and background information by scholar Robert DeMott. While the information text and later entries are interesting, the central “working days” journal is definitely the highlight. It’s fascinating to see just how much sheer work goes into the process of great writing -not magical inspiration, but a grinding amount of man-hours and forced effort. It does a great job of cutting through lots of the romantic bullshit that gets heaped on great creators.

The process of creating good art is work. It’s also often full of brutalizing self-doubt, anxiety, and a fleeting certainty that you are actually no good, that you are a pretender, and that your big project is a crock of worthless shit and that anyone with a shred of perception will see the truth and call you out. And creation can veer into grandiosity, your unshakable self-important knowledge that this is a great work, a future masterpiece, something that will make everyone stop being evil and sit and feel and understand. Steinbeck, writing for himself as an act of creative discipline, shows every foible and every swing in the process of deep, involved writing. It’s good to know that you aren’t alone in your insanity.

Recommendation: Read the canon, of course. And if you are any kind of creative laborer, read the journals, too. 


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