A letter from John Steinbeck

He said he loves my book! Oh, no, wait, that was in my dream. Yes, I always dream about dead authors. Did I never tell you the one where Alan Ginsberg and I were running away from groupies? No? That was one of my favourite dreams ever, although Howl fangirls are scary.

Two different friends directed me toward the “Letters of Note” blog last week, because they thought I’d appreciate this real letter from John Steinbeck. And I do, I really do. It gave me a chuckle, although I hasten to add that my own experience with editors bears very little resemblance to Steinbeck’s. His depiction has, I think, become a bit of a stereotype: the artist creates, the editors all jump in and muck it up like too many cooks. I’ve found my editors, all the way through, to be thoughtful, book-loving individuals who care deeply about what they do.

This, however, really struck me:

Miguel Cervantes invented the modem novel and with his Don Quixote set a mark high and bright. In his prologue, he said best what writers feel—the gladness and the terror.

“Idling reader,” Cervantes wrote, “you may believe me when I tell you that I should have liked this book, which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest and the cleverest that could be imagined, but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like—”

Ah, I love Cervantes. Remind me to tell you sometime about this dream I had where he and I were discussing Proust – ye gods, that was hysterical! Especially since I hadn’t read any Proust and was faking it the whole time. Although for all I know, Cervantes was faking it too. He strikes me as the sort who could be wily that way.

But yes, hope and fear! Hope and fear! That’s what writers are full of (well, that and beans). Either extreme is untenable; the balance is devoutly to be sought, and yet I feel I spend way more time than is healthy bouncing back and forth between the poles.

This is why reading these letters from the masters is important, I think, and why blogging this stuff – where I say, “I am human and sometimes I am afraid” – is important, and why books are important. There’s a comfort in seeing the same struggle in 16th century Spain and 20th century America. We’re not alone, any of us.


One Comment on “A letter from John Steinbeck”

  1. I seem to dream about Canadian politicians quite a bit. I once dreamt that I met Bob Rae and compared him Antonioni; I knew nothing about Antonioni (neither dreaming nor awake, as it happens), and I could tell he knew I was faking it.


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