Thursday, September 27, 2012

on writing - john steinbeck

Dear Writer:

      Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story
writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyed
and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good
short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly.
The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short
story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a
most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great
short stories there are in the world.

      The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective
had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its
offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules.
A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all
- so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary
for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about.
As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for
only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three-, six-, or ten-
thousand words.

By Rainer Tenhunen

       So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that,
we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in
some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of
excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt
unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my
teacher's side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the
rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.

      It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done.
Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn't, and maybe it's because no two
stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still
don't know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.

      If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever
been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The
formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he
feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by
no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes
a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an
ineffective story.

      It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to
start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who not
scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

- John Steinbeck  

(Read full letter)

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