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A Bit of Writing Advice from John Steinbeck: What He Did to Keep from Going Nuts

Posted on Feb 18, 2007 by

Just over forty years ago—on February 13 and 14 of 1962—John Steinbeck wrote some advice about writing to Robert Wallsten (a man who, it turns out, is one of the editors of Steinbeck’s letters).

Steinbeck prefaced his advice on writing this way:

Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.

One piece of his advice seems especially relevant here to this notion of perspective—the possibility of reframing our stories (and perhaps our bodies? our lives?) in a clearer and somewhat kinder light.

That possibility of looking at our stories in new ways—

Steinbeck writes:

Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theatre, it doesn’t exist. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person—and write to that one.

It’s sound advice, I think. It also leads quite naturally to a couple of questions:
What does the nameless, faceless audience look like?
What does your nameless, faceless audience look like?
And say that you could address your writing to one particular person—any person in the world—alive or dead—real or imagined—who would you pick?

[Note: I found the above quotes by Steinbeck in Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others, p. 144.]