On Brain Pickings, Steinbeck and self-doubt
I’m a huge fan and regular reader of Maria Popova’s weekly email newsletter “Brain Pickings”.
To quote Maria, “Brain Pickings has a free Sunday digest of the week’s most interesting and inspiring articles across art, science, philosophy, creativity, children’s books, and other strands of our search for truth, beauty, and meaning.”
Sometimes I skim articles that don’t appeal to me – other times I pause to read and digest her commentaries on great people and great works. I even order and read some of the books that she recommends (including my first read of 2020 “Underland” by Robert Macfarlane).
Last week’s newsletter was a compendium of New Year’s resolutions from great thinkers over the years.
One article that caught my eye in particular was about author John Steinbeck and his struggles to overcome his own imposter syndrome as a writer.
I reproduce her article here in it’s entirety as a metaphor for all of us who suffer from self-doubt in any area of our lives – just as Steinbeck did.
I urge you to add “Brain Pickings” to your reading list – it really is quite excellent.
JOHN STEINBECK: USE DISCIPLINE TO CATALYSE CREATIVE MAGIC
Many celebrated writers have championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but no one has put the diary to more impressive practical use in the creative process than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968).
In the spring of 1938, he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life. The public fruit of this labor would become the 1939 masterwork The Grapes of Wrath, which earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and was a cornerstone for his Nobel Prize two decades later. But its private rewards are at least as important and morally instructive: Alongside the novel, Steinbeck also began keeping a diary, eventually published as Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath — a living record of his creative journey, in which this extraordinary writer tussles with excruciating self-doubt (exactly the kind Virginia Woolf so memorably described) but plows forward anyway, with equal parts gusto and grist, determined to do his best with the gift he has despite his limitations.
His journal, which became for him a practice both redemptive and transcendent, stands as a supreme testament to the fact that the essential substance of genius is the daily act of showing up. Steinbeck captures this perfectly in an entry that applies just as well to any field of creative endeavour:
In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I feel like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.
The journal thus becomes at once a tool of self-discipline (he vowed to write in it every single weekday, and did, declaring in one of the first entries: “Work is the only good thing.”), a pacing mechanism (he gave himself seven months to complete the book, anticipated it would actually take only 100 days, and finished it in under five months, averaging 2,000 words per day, longhand, not including the diary), and a sounding board for much-needed positive self-talk in the face of constant doubt (“I am so lazy and the thing ahead is so very difficult,” he despairs in one entry; but he assures himself in another: “My will is low. I must build my will again. And I can do it.”) Above all, it is a tool of accountability to keep him moving forward despite life’s litany of distractions and responsibilities. “Problems pile up so that this book moves like a Tide Pool snail with a shell and barnacles on its back,” he writes, and yet the essential thing is that despite the problems, despite the barnacles, it does move. He captures this in one of his most poignant entries, shortly before completing the first half of the novel:
Every book seems the struggle of a whole life. And then, when it is done — pouf. Never happened. Best thing is to get the words down every day. And it is time to start now.
A few days later, he spirals into self-doubt again:
My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.
And so he inches forward, day after day. As he nears the finish line, he is even more certain of this incremental reach for greatness:
I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.
And yet even as he approaches the end, his self-doubt remains as unshakable as his commitment to finish:
I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing — it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do. Now to work on it.
The book, of course, was far from run-of-the-mill. In addition to earning the two highest accolades in literature, The Grapes of Wrath remained atop the bestseller list for almost a year after it was published, sold nearly 430,000 copies in its first year alone, and remains one of the most read and celebrated novels ever written.