In the spring of 1990, a close friend of mine underwent brain surgery. Initially unable to read, another friend of ours would visit her regularly and read aloud. I was a couple hundred miles away, but when I heard the book they were reading was East of Eden, I decided to get a copy and read along with them, so we could discuss it over the phone.
In the next two days, I devoured the entire book. And then I discovered that my friend had given me the wrong book title.
So by this lucky accident, I discovered one of my favorite stories of all time. I am still astonished when I reread it. Steinbeck was a great author, but, in my opinion, this one is truly his masterpiece. I read somewhere that he, too, thought it was his best.
Over the years he wrote a few different pieces of advice for writers, but my favorite is this:
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.
That urge was really the main component of what I was taught to develop as an artist. Skills are important, but identifying that urge, that thing you don’t want to live without sharing, without creating, that is at the heart of all true artistry. At least in my experience.
I imagine Steinbeck’s urge to write the story that became East of Eden must have been an especially powerful one. I know that parts of it were about his own family, which has a lot of resonance for me, since I also am inspired by my family history.
This week I let some pieces that are done sit, so I can see them with fresh eyes next week, and see if they need any changes, and I started working on some new images, one of which is above.
But I also took time to sit and free write and draw about what has the most resonance for me, about where that urge is coming from and what it is for. Not because I think there is an answer to be found in words, but because I don’t want to forget to get my ego and all my desires to create something that makes people say wow out of the way and just make something true.