A Prelude to Working Days

Not long ago a writer friend of mine was venting about the anxiety he felt before beginning his next project. He’d had some small measure of success with two previous works and was starting to build a little heat within the publishing world.

“Any and all positive encouragement is validating, of course, but it also makes me nervous,” he said. “The idea of a critical audience makes my process too deliberate. I’m catching myself thinking about how my writing is going to be received, instead of just being true to the process.”

My advice was little help. I told him that his concerns have been shared by any man wishing to make a living out of make-believe. I suggested he read some of John Steinbeck’s musings on the subject: Working Days and Journal of a Novel.

“Work is the only good thing.”

Steinbeck kept journals as he wrote, and it’s a fascinating living record of his creative journey, in which this extraordinary writer tussles with excruciating self-doubt and yet 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 — Steinbeck’s daily journaling becomes a practice both redemptive and transcendent.

“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.”

This is a maxim for any writer to live by: I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.

Steinbeck Life PassesReading the first halting and fearful entries in Working Days, you see Steinbeck choking with trepidation and insecurity. Fearing that his earlier accomplishments were little more than a con. “Among other things, I feel I have put something over. That this little success of mine is cheating.”

Nevertheless, he kept writing… each day. Woke up, went to his desk, and got to work.

During a five-month period Steinbeck averaged 2,000 words a day, the equivalent of seven double-spaced typed pages, dragging himself along kicking and screaming at what he felt was little more than mediocrity. “Vacillating and miserable… I’m so lazy, so damned lazy. Where has my discipline gone? Have I lost control? My laziness is overwhelming.”

But still, he kept writing…  eventually creating (arguably) one of the greatest American novels.

John Steinbeck portraitI told my friend (who is, in all likelihood, a genius) that showing up is half the battle. That, like Steinbeck, he must focus on getting his words down, and leave the hand-wringing to ex post facto.

Many of exceptional brilliance are plagued by constant self-doubt, and that perhaps the most important quality setting the brilliant apart from the mediocre is their willingness to let the doubt happen but plow forward anyway, not to be shown up by it but to show up doggedly for the day’s task, however monumental its demands and however paltry its reward.

The great payoff is not critical or commercial success, but the knowledge that one has simply done one’s best.

As I also prepare for a large undertaking of my own — getting my mental arm in shape to pitch a good game — I’ve found myself heeding my own advice.

Doubt remains, and a fearful hesitance that questions why I should even bother, but more than this: excitement. I have only just sat down in the rollercoaster, and I am glad to take the ride.


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