A few months back I read a collection of Steinbeck’s letters. The gist of it was an exercise given to him by his editor at the time as he prepared to write ‘East of Eden’. His editor provided him with a journal, and Steinbeck wrote a letter to him each day he wrote the novel as a warm up. It allowed him to loosen up, like stretching his legs before a run. If there is no better friend than a good book, I can’t imagine a better mate than this collection of letters for another writer. Steinbeck is my god. This changes week to week, and more often than not he’s a buried treasure. There are tens of his books that I’m refusing to read yet, as he’s not making any more. He came to mind today as I came to the end of ‘Grapes of Wrath’.
I’ve read three quarters of Grapes on two other occasions; the first time when I was roaming France. At the time I was working on my first book, Felix Culpa, and I didn’t see reading as the nourishment for writing that I do now. It felt like an influence more than inspiration, more like trying to compose an original symphony and having it come out in the riff of Seven Nation Army for giving Jack White too much freedom in your head. Mostly I liked Grapes so much I wanted to keep Tom Joad alive, and originally guessed that he’d die or come to some tragic end. No spoilers here. The point isn’t that he did or didn’t, but that I fannied out of letting him be edited by fate. I wasn’t done with him and figured there’d be a better setting for reading his story, rather than in fleeting glimpses when I’d get a chance to sit down at the side of a road to read. The second time it was more of the same. I’ll blame it on a short attention span at the time. It wasn’t a hangover book, was too great a meal to take in between shifts at a bar where the reality of the Depression didn’t exist, like it never had. It would have been an injustice to pretend to absorb it. For whatever reason I could finally take it in properly and now it’s over and the Joads are living elsewhere, timelessly off the page, the collection of letters occurred to me.
Usually as a ‘warm-up’ I’ll type. Just type. It’ll be about Maddie, Rupie, Rupert or Binky, depending on the notes I’ve been garnering, the frame of mind I’m in. I have thousands – tens of thousands – of pages about the characters of Dear Mr Busby that will maybe not see the light of day. Or maybe they will. They are probably my favourite parts of the book, the nothing, the insignificant things that make up a person that feel as significant as a conversation with a real breathing person at any other point in the day. It’s like the characters have been cooped up too long, stuck in all day, and now they have an audience and me to listen to them, they come out with it – their reams, puddles and piles of verbal diarrhoea and shite. I let them and love them for it, and when they’re done it’s time to get to work and edit, rework or write up the notes I’ve been making on my phone. Writing those notes is like sending texts to people who don’t exist – sending a quick message to let them know to pick up milk on the way home, that I’m cooking tonight, that I won’t be in to work so I’d best get as many notes that occur to me down in some form for the next day when I can give them my undivided attention.
So Steinbeck’s letters came to mind and for the times like today when my attention has been divided with other things, I intend to make use of the idea and type until I’m focussed. On the average day the need for it is rare. I’m over a year into the determined writing of Dear Mr Busby. Breaks are taken when sanity demands, but mostly it’s daily and it’s desperate jog across town to get everything done and get writing what is fit to burst out. But there are times when it’s not like this. I don’t believe in writers’ block, but I do believe that if I have a very clear image of how something should go that it has to be executed precisely or else it doesn’t count. Mostly I liken my writing ethic to physical exercise and a muse, story, or in this case the lives of the characters of Dear Mr Busby, are akin to creatine. If I take a weekend off then a loading phase needs to follow. For creatine to be effective you need to saturate your muscles with it for when it’s time for the heavy lifting. Similarly it’s important to saturate my thoughts with Rupert before I can live and breathe him and do him justice when I come to write.