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Journal of a novel

August 4, 2016

Come with me now as I go all the way around the block to explain how I discovered Journal of a Novel.

Recently, a writer group member bemoaned being sidelined because of computer problems. I suggested that she write in longhand, which I find myself doing more often than not. That’s surprising, since my penmanship is so bad that sometimes I cannot later decipher it. It also makes double work for me. In order to do almost anything with my writing, after I’m done with pen and paper, I have to keyboard what I wrote.

Nevertheless I find working with pen and paper so satisfying, I’ll invent excuses to do it. On the rare occasion when I don’t have a novel or short story in progress, I’ll write in my journal, or pen a letter to a friend. Curious as to why this is so, I did some research. I read about a study showing that students who wrote by hand produced longer essays, faster, and expressed more ideas than they did when they used a keyboard. Perhaps subconsciously I realize that writing in longhand results in better writing.

In indicating that the particular writing tool used didn’t seem to matter, the article mentioned the Blackwing pencil as if this was something with which I should already be familiar. I wasn’t, so I looked into it.

The Blackwing pencil was introduced in the 1930s by Eberhard Faber and was used by Oscar, Grammy, and Pulitzer Prize winners throughout the 20th century. After it was discontinued in the 1990s, fans began paying as much as $40 per pencil to just to get their hands on one. In 2010, Palomino revived the Blackwing.

One of the award-winning authors who favored the Blackwing was John Steinbeck. The story that mentioned Steinbeck and the Blackwing pencil stated that the man did indeed write his novels in longhand and that he favored pencils over pens. I learned this in a reference to a publication entitled Journal of a Novel. This Journal was a compilation of letters that Steinbeck wrote to his editor and friend and kept in the same notebook as his work on the East of Eden novel. The journal entries were Steinbeck’s way of warming up before tackling the novel.

Steinbeck never did intend for that journal to be seen by anyone but his publisher friend. However, as is often the case in our culture, the assumption is made that there’s a market for everything done by a celebrity, so a year after Steinbeck’s death, his journal was published. I imagine if his grocery lists were found, they’d get published too.

Cynicism aside, I did find myself wondering if there was some wisdom in an award-winning author’s journal that I as a writer would find helpful. Apparently, the general public is also interested in what goes on behind the scenes. We writers are urged to make ourselves available for interviews, video chats, podcasts, evenings with the author, and other opportunities to reveal how books get written.

Therefore, while I’m not claiming to be in the same league as John Steinbeck, why shouldn’t you find my writing life to be as interesting as his? Sure, a lot of it is applied effort, but not all. Some of it is quite mysterious and magical, even for me, much like the chance discovery of Steinbeck’s journal. In future posts, I’ll share both Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel and what I learn from it, and I’ll show you what the writing life is like for me. I won’t even make you wait until I’m dead.

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