When Ashley and I loaded up and headed for the artistic promise land, I heavily relied on The Grapes of Wrath as a source of determination and hope. And also as an answer when the day of reality and hard facts was laid out flatly before us. Throughout our scrambles since, whatever mused Steinbeck we have felt it too. A belief in an invisible justice for those who will put it on the line. It may not happen, though it likely could have, and it arguably should have if fate shared our system of values or saw the situation as we do. Now my foggy memory of working for the bank is told to me in Steinbeck, for I was the hired man bulldozing the house as the family watched. No man does these things, but the corporate of them will. And when our things were loaded into a truck we went off with them, hanging on to nothing but a hope and a good reason to go. Leaving everything behind, wanting everything still to be ahead of us again.
A confession: I am perpetually fact checking on people I admire. I call it “wiki-stalking.” How old was Elton John when he made his first record? What was his socioeconomic status? How long did he fail miserably? I try and figure out exactly what his cards were, and how it happened for him (and not just Elton but Billy Joel, too). Was it a personal attribute, talent, luck or disposition (such mysteries as the case of Justin Timberlake)? Usually it’s a little of all of it. I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers about how success, outlandish success, is as much linked to factors outside an individual as it is to their own talent. Or how about some John Maxwell for you?, Talent is Never Enough. Certainly better than all of it though, is Steinbeck. What has makes a great and lasting story is that:
“A great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. If a story is not about a hearer he will not listen. The strange and foreign is not interesting- only the deeply personal and familiar .”
(quoted from East of Eden)
Success-obsession neglects the total value of our losses, battles, lessons, loves, victories and endurances. Some might look at the difference at their beginning and their peak. Others by what they were able to give back. Net worth is the black and white of it. Influence is the seeping rest of it. Everything can work out easily if you don’t ask for much. The asking alone might be one’s success or another’s regret. Some would ask for the whole world, never get it, but look back with fondness at when they saw themselves close or making a pure effort. To him a good toss and a miss for the moon is more satisfactory than spitting at his foot and winning.
From East of Eden:
“It takes great courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There’s a punishment for it, and it’s usually crucifixion.”
I found a detailed Chronology of Steinbeck in the back of my library copy of East of Eden. Of course then, I fell into a similar state of “wiki-stalking” Steinbeck. I found him 36 and only moderately successful in his attempts to be a writer. He’d been commissioned to write articles about the situation of migrant workers leaving the Dust Bowl for California. After a few failed attempts he set aside 100 days to write the manuscript from those articles that would become The Grapes of Wrath. The Chronology also mentioned that he kept a journal of these 100 days that was posthumously published as Working Days, the journals of The Grapes of Wrath.
Today at a used book store I found a copy of Working Days. It’s sitting in front of me, for I’m now in the middle of East of Eden. Maybe the journal is a window into the pre-epic Steinbeck: his determination, inspiration, and self doubt. I want to read the coffee break gibberish as he balanced his story and built the characters of the novel. I hope that it accounts for the struggle behind art. Maybe it gives some kind of clue to a creative process which no one knew. The voice that speaks into the wind over the dustbowl, what does it say about a good word-count goal on a Tuesday? Did his wife go get groceries or did he need to get out of the house for a while? The man really wrote the story, we have it on our shelves.
It seems like reading something such as this could be to reach out and touch it. Maybe then, after reading such candid, naked thought, then I the hearer could read the familiar. Then be encouraged. Maybe there is no great novel or song in me, but there can at least be a reach for one. Until I am given control of fate, the best chance I have is to keep my reaching in tact.