In an old interview with The Paris Review, John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, shared how he focused on writing for one individual person instead of addressing a large audience. According to the article, it provided Steinbeck with a sense of freedom when beginning a new project. The idea to focus on one person has been key for me throughout the process of drafting my book proposal for my memoir. I have another man to thank for pushing me to start when I didn’t know where to begin.
He won’t remember this exchange but I asked Robert Elder at the Chicago Writers Conference last fall his advice on how to start a book when so much of the information I felt I needed to access was still filed as classified by various governments. He’d just finished discussing how he approached the puzzle of writing Hidden Hemingway and I thought he might have some idea on how to begin writing something when I didn’t have all of the answers. His advice? “Just start writing. See where it goes.”
Then a friend of mine referenced Steinbeck and I came across this interview on how to get started and between Elder’s prompt and Steinbeck’s comment to write for one individual person, it clicked for me.
And then, of course, you are faced with the blank page once you’re ready to start. For this, too, Steinbeck has some advice and it’s similar to Elder’s: just start.
I share this because now that the proposal is complete and I’m in the process of researching agents, several people have asked me about my process. Several things worked for me, including developing a consistent writing practice where I tackled specific parts of my proposal at any given time and blocking out hours at a time on a weekend morning at the library where there were few distractions. I also took to heart both Elder and Steinbeck’s recommendations: start writing and consider your audience of one.
From The Paris Review, here are more of Steinbeck’s recommendation in the form of a letter to Robert Wallsten in February of 1962:
“Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.
1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day; it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theatre, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”
Steinbeck’s thoughts are meant for a writer but they needn't to be limited to that demographic.
When I’m pitching a story to a reporter on behalf of a client or marketing a product, it helps to think of that one person who is receiving your message. It makes your message that much stronger and authentic.
Right now, I’m thinking of someone very important to me as I continue this process. Who knew Steinbeck would play such a pivotal role in my work and life.
While I can’t raise a glass and enjoy a nice cold cocktail with Steinbeck right now, I hope he’ll accept a virtual cheers, wherever he may be.