When things were going particularly bad for my writing, I found my way to the journals John Steinbeck kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath. Every morning he woke up, stretched, sauntered to his writing desk, and then berated the holy hell out of himself for being a fraud and a hack for about three pages. Then, he put those bruising notes aside and wrote another magnificent chapter of his epic novel. It amazed me that the pulsing self-doubt he put down didn't hamstring him completely. It also made me feel wonderful. Ohh, I thought. Everyone has this thing. This negative voice.
In various parts of his journal, Steinbeck takes aim at his character, his ability to pursue the task he has set for himself, and the worth of his own existence. His sense of his self is so closely tied to his work that it feels he was skirting closer to emotional collapse the whole time and I read these journals like a psychosocial thriller.
He begins by taking aim at his general character: "No one else knows my lack of ability the way I do." He spares little: "Always I have been weak. Vacillating and miserable."
As his novel progressed it darkened his mood. I know the ebbs of his life as I've studied his work, but the journals revealed such a close look at a plunging soul that I became afraid for the guy as I read.
"In my own person," he says, "I am filled with a lowness that has the physical feeling of a hangover. It bothers me in the night." These nights are familiar to many writers, I imagine. He later simplifies his feelings down to, "Terrible feeling of lostness and loneliness."
On August 16th, 1938, he writes, "Demoralization complete and seemingly unbeatable."
I am only offering some of the highlights here, the solid jabs he lands on his own face. This level of self-imposed hurt made me wonder if all creatives hear this voice?
I went looking for the answer to my question by studying actors, stand-up comedians, artists, and even architects. It turns out, of course they do. Setting yourself on a path of writers or artists you admire means you are forever striving toward the polished work of others' talent. We don't long to reproduce the early drafts of our favorite work. We don't even think of those. Our early drafts, and the process of drafting, feel incapable of encroaching on the realm of our idols. So we doubt. Creation and doubt are conjoined twins.
I kept reading the journals until I found a line that seemed most apt for summing up all these criticisms he launches. "The gray birds of loneliness hopping about."
This it seems encapsulates his inner hydra of self-hate, a genius poet of vile perched on his shoulders.
Steinbeck's journals were the receptacle for the natural byproducts of creation. Of his striving to meet his idol's work. It was hard for me to read how much he heaped on himself, but in a way it now feels like a gift. A warning. I take his brutal honesty as a lesson in compartmentalizing that part of my own personality, making it more identifiable, and in doing so easier to push aside when it tries to pass judgement on my own unfinished work. I read his journal and hope for two things: no one ever reads my crazy journals and it becomes easier to scare off the gray birds of loneliness.
*John Steinbeck. Working Days. The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath. Ed. By Robert Demott. Penguin 1990.