A TIME TO SPEAK, A TIME TO BE SILENT
Adelaide Writers' Week, with all its hoopla, is over, and it is time to stop
talking and start writing. For the last couple of months I have been wondering
about writing a book within
a book, the one, fiction – albeit based on the lives of a number of real people
– the other, its non-fiction companion, consisting of an account of my physical
journey to Ireland to research the novel, as well as the inner musical and
literary journey that underpins the subject matter.
I dream of the two works
being published in the same book, but even as I sketch a tentative outline I
can almost hear the conversation in which my publisher gently but firmly
insists that the fiction and non-fiction parts of the manuscript are conjoined
twins who, if they are to survive, will have to be separated. Sales people are
wringing their hands, she will explain, perplexed by how to pitch such a hybrid
With luck, the novel will be published and then, depending upon its
success or, more probably, the lack of it, the memoir will either follow at a
later date or
its manuscript will be consigned to the shallow grave of the bottom drawer. The
difficulties are legion, and yet still I feel myself tugged in the direction of
the fiction/non-fiction book. I have no clear idea of how to write two such
different narratives simultaneously, other than by keeping a detailed record of
my travels and cracking on with the novel.
I am indebted to Jim Crace who, upon hearing of my project, told me that
John Steinbeck had kept a journal during the writing of
East of Eden.
close friend and editor, Pascal Covici, had given him a notebook, which the
writer dutifully filled, keeping the left-hand pages for his journal and the
right-hand pages for the text of his novel.
Steinbeck's first entry is dated
January 29, 1951, a Monday morning in the month and year of my birth: I was 28
days old when Steinbeck began to document the writing of
East of Eden.
He speaks in the journal of being engaged in writing a very long book and one
he had no
intention of finishing, but that appears to have been a subterfuge he used to
inside the story, to write every day as if it were his last.
While the novel may have been long, it was published the following year. In the
between its publication and the posthumous appearance of
Journal of A
in 1969, Steinbeck had won the Nobel Prize.
Jim Crace was of the opinion that publishing the works simultaneously
would have distracted readers from the novel, but I'm not sure I agree. Reading
the two together offers an almost three-dimensional literary experience. At the
very least, it is illuminating to have direct access – even decades after the
event – to the great novelist's thoughts, his leaps of imagination and
invention, his deliberate use of family and life experience. Even the
knowledge that Steinbeck hesitated to begin, that he stood fearfully in a spot
most writers recognise – on the brink, filled with trepidation that he would
not be able to produce the novel he yearned to write, is infinitely reassuring.
It helps, too, to know that although he had good writing days and bad writing
days, just as I do, his philosophy of turning up to work each morning, whatever
the prevailing wind, in the end produced a masterpiece.
Perhaps this desire to step behind the scenes and observe the writer's
day-to-day process is one result of the intellectualisation of literary
creativity that has come about through creative writing programmes and literary
festivals. We have become accustomed to the show-and-tell aspects of the
writing life in a manner that would probably have appalled Steinbeck, who saw
the journal as both a writing ritual and a daily warm-up for his real work.
More than half a century later, this flexing of his writing muscle allows us to
peer over his shoulder at a work in progress. But our view, though fascinating,
is partially obscured, not by time, but by the writer himself, for although
Steinbeck never corrected or edited the journal, he admits near the beginning
that he wrote many thousands of words a day, some of it secret writing he
didn't care to share with anyone, not even the close friend and editor to whom
the journal entries are addressed. He kept his secret writing separate, he
says, and burned it when it was of no further use to him.
Voyeurs that we are, spoiled by decades of literary talk-fests, the allure
destroyed words is greater than the all rest. What did Steinbeck think about on
mornings when he rose early to go to his new and almost-too-comfortable writing
room? What was private and sensitive enough to be made into a bonfire, and
wouldn't it have been more absorbing for readers that the journal he was
keeping, or even his novel?
Steinbeck had recently moved to a new house with a new wife. He speaks in
the journal of his happiness, and assigns it to two outlets: the new woman in
his life, and the pure bliss of creation, the 'shout of joy' of words on the
page. Counterbalancing this joy was the fact that Steinbeck's previous wife had
custody of their two young sons, for whom he was writing
Given that recent history, I think we can guess at the kinds of outpourings
Steinbeck's secret writings contained. And burning was probably the
best option. Great writers, even Novel Prize winners are, after all, only
human. Through their writing they give us more than ordinary amounts of truth,
more personal revelations, more than factory-standard insights. That they
happen to be adept with language, that they love working with the 'wriggling
words' on the page, does not make them superhuman nor excuse our prurient
invasions of privacy.
After taking part in Adelaide Writers' Week 2010, I am both struck by the
power of words on a page to move people, and by the diverse places writers
are writing from. I am also convinced that the best writing comes from a silent
place and it is only long after it is finished that we can, or should, talk
Other musings on the Writing Life ...