As I keep my own journal this year, I've become more interested in the journals kept by other authors. At Powell's Books, recently, Squish and I prowled the shelves searching for some, and came home with Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary, John Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, and The Journals of John Cheever. (Prerequisite, possibly, for having your journals published: you must die.)
I am actively keeping two journals at present. The first, my everyday journal, records my thoughts on any subject that crosses my mind. Sometimes—well, often—that includes my displeasure at the first draft I'm writing of Next Book, or a note of completion when I've finished an editorial pass. The second journal is, at the moment, at least, where I collect research and notes about Next Next Book. When I'm ready, perhaps I'll attempt writing the book longhand, or at least doing some exercises related to the story there before I sit down at my computer to write.
Though I am juggling three other books—Anna Yen's Sophia of Silicon Valley, Joan Didion's South and West: From a Notebook, and Joe Fassler's Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process—I began reading the Steinbeck journals last night. Immediately, I was rewarded with some reassurance:
Of course we all know how East of Eden turned out. At this point in Steinbeck's career, he had yet to win the Nobel Prize, which he'd be awarded in 1962, eleven years after he began this journal, but he was eleven years past being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath. The man was widely considered one of the greatest American authors of his or any era, and he still wrestled with doubt when he sat down to write.
New authors and experienced authors alike, I think, can take something from that.
My favorite passages of these early pages are about his writing space and tools:
My first day of work in my new room. It is a very pleasant room and I have a drafting table to work on which I have always wanted—also a comfortable chair given me by Elaine. In fact I have never had it so good and so comfortable. It does occur to me that perhaps it might be a little too comfortable. I have known such things to happen—the perfect pointed pencil—the paper persuasive—the fantastic chair and a good light and no writing.
I'll have to remember this when I find myself bogged down too much in my tools. He summed it all up thusly:
Steinbeck began the journal on Jan. 29, 1951. The first few entries are all about his notion of what the novel will be, the things he hopes to achieve, the tools with which and space within which he will work.
My choice of pencils lies now between the black Calculator stolen from Fox Films and this Mongol 2 3/8 F which is quite black and holds its point well—much better in fact than the Fox pencils. I will get six more or maybe four dozens of them for my pencil tray. And this is all I am going to do on this my first day of work.
You can practically see what's barreling down on him, can't you? Despite his self-awareness, he's still lining up his pencils.
I am very happy at my new table and with all my things about me. Never have I had such a comfortable layout.
And then, on February 13, his official start date of actually writing the novel:
I think I'll read and re-read this book before I begin any project, and perhaps while I'm deep in the belly of each as well. There are almost certainly no great prizes of literature in my future, but when it comes to the paralysis of doing the work, the weight of expectations, the realization that words are hardly capable of describing what's in one's head, Mr. Steinbeck and I have plenty in common.