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How John Steinbeck Convinced Me to Start a Writing Diary

Confronting self-doubt head on can help put it behind you.

Source: Penguin

I have long toyed with the idea of keeping a journal or diary. I like the idea of keeping a record of my life, something to look back on to remember how I felt about things in the past and see how much I’ve changed (or not). (For more on such benefits of keeping a diary, see this article by Anna North.) I am very reflective by nature (often excessively so), so reflecting in words on paper or screen would seem natural.

Aside from several quickly aborted attempts, though, I never did. Why not? Frankly, I was afraid of what the diary would reveal to me if I were to be brutally honest with it. (And if I weren't, what’s the point?) I tend to agree with C.S. Lewis, who “feared that it just aggravated sadness and reinforced neurosis” (in the words of David Brooks). Whenever I would start to record my thoughts and anxieties, my fears were borne out: it was one thing to have these negative thoughts rattling around inside my head, unformed and unsettled, but to see them “solidified” on the page or screen made them all too real. And the thought that anyone would see them—the legacy of watching all too many clichéd sitcoms—well, forget it.

I have, however, tried to keep track of my writing progress for more practical reasons, whether recording day-to-day work on various projects in a Notebook or Word file, or simply tracking word counts in an Excel file (keeping track of totals, averages, and average word counts needed to finish on time or sooner). But these simple accounting methods left no room for reflection, thoughts of a qualitative nature on the work done for the day or what was to be done the next. And this was deliberate, for the same reasons I avoided a personal diary or journal.

But then I came across John Steinbeck’s writing diary from when he worked on The Grapes of Wrath, which was itself published as a book and highlighted (with copious examples) by Maria Popova several months ago at her indispensable site Brain Pickings. At first glance, Steinbeck’s diary seems like an exercise in self-flagellation, a playground for the self-loathing I’ve written about so much here.

I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were.

No one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time.

It astonished me that he could be so nakedly critical, not just of his writing but of his talent and worth as a writer, and still persevere, day after day, to finish his monumental work. From my point of view, he must have felt an incredible sense of purpose to make it through the hell he seemed to subject himself to on almost a daily basis, at least for significant periods in his writing process.

Not for me, I thought, this diary business! I don’t need yet another forum to express my self-doubt. (After all, I already have this blog!) Over the last several months, though, especially after I started reading his diaries themselves, I regarded them as a sort of catharsis for a writer. By recording his progress as well as his concerns, Steinbeck could get some distance from them, put them into a broader context, and actually see his steadily progressing accomplishment for what it was.

Finally I started keeping my own writing diary, sometimes expanding its focus to work in general (especially when it gets in the way of writing), but keeping clear of more personal matters. (Ha, as if I have any personal matters.) I’m pleased to say that it’s going fairly well so far. It helps to counteract my natural tendency to think I haven’t achieved anything, to focus on one day’s disappointing word count instead of the last day’s above-average record, and to see the forest for the trees, as it were.

Best of all, it helps me to press on, resting at the end of the day satisfied with an adequate amount of work rather than worrying when the project will be finished. It also provides an incentive to produce said adequate amount of work each day, because it will be recorded (even if for my eyes only), and thereby reduces the "opportunity" for wallowing in self-loathing. (I imagine I will have such opportunities before long, but one must be optimistic, right?)

Along those lines, a simple lesson to be learned from Steinbeck’s diary is the importance of regular, diligent work:

Just work a certain length of time and it will get done poco a poco. Just do the day’s work.

I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.

Finally, for those of us who can’t seem to keep offline to write, what with the Twitter and the Facebook and whatnot, you may be surprised that Steinbeck felt the same, even in 1938:

This is a hell of a time to be writing a book. Everything in the world is happening and I must sit here and write.

Admittedly, World War II was brewing, but he didn’t hear about it instantly on his iPhone or computer screen (or have to read everyone's "hot take" on it).

Similar to my experiences reading Tolstoy’s Confessions, I read Steinbeck's diary and think, "wow, that's how I feel.” But then I ask myself, "have I really earned that feeling?" Am I entitled to the same anxieties, knowing they will never result in anything comparable to The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men (much less War and Peace)? Perhaps the greatest lesson to learned from reading the personal accounts of great writers and thinkers, though an obvious one, is that, despite their incredible talent, drive, and vision, they are human beings with anxieties and doubts just like the rest of us (and maybe even more than most of us). Nonetheless, they struggled through them to create something of value, whether to millions of people or just a handful, and they can inspire us to do the same.

For me, Steinbeck is a role model just for fighting (and writing) through the despair, keeping his eye on the book that he wanted to write, the book that he had to write, and working on it a little bit at a time until it was finished. “Just do the day’s work,” he wrote—and we must learn to be satisfied with that, because at the end of day that’s all any of us can do.

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