STEINBECK, JOHN. Typed letter signed ("John") to Dennis Murphy, Sag Harbor, New York, 26 May 1956. 2 pages, 4to, single-spaced, on three sheets of onion-skin paper with Steinbeck's name and address imprinted at head of the first page, more than 1800 words, a few pencilled corrections by the author, some slight marginal foxing.
ADVICE TO A YOUNG WRITER: "WORDS ARE JUST PURE MAGIC ... WRITE WHAT YOU SEE AND HEAR AND THINK AND FEEL"
The recipient Dennis Murphy was the son of John Murphy, Steinbeck's boyhood friend from Salinas, California. Dennis's older brother Michael was a co-founder of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. It's been said that Steinbeck used the two as models for the two brothers in East of Eden. In these remarkable letters to Dennis Murphy in this and the following six lots, Steinbeck helps and advises the young man on his book and writing career and in so doing reveals a great deal about himself, both as a person and as a world-famous author, and gives his ideas on writing, literature, publishers, agents, etc. Murphy's novel, The Sergeant, was published in 1958 and became a best-seller. He later moved to Los Angeles and became a successful screenwriter.
Steinbeck writes: "First let me say that I think your story is very good. It is a delicate and difficult subject and it is handled with honesty and simplicity...Another thing I like about it is that it is not sorry for anybody. It leaves that to the reader. The rule of the theatre applies to prose writing. If you laugh the audience will not, and if you cry you will have plenty of dry eyes...sometimes the very things that make a story good are its deviations, sometimes even its faults -- in a classical sense. Words themselves are living things and will not subject themselves to measurement. A word can leap out of a page with a completely new meaning simply because the writer wanted it to mean that. Words are just pure magic and must be treated with respect...I have always suspected those people who say they write for themselves as being liars. I don't know how soon you can get publication. That seems to be a matter of luck or help. There are prime and often used examples of superb work which never got published during the life time of the writer. These are rare. It is true that Moby Dick did not sell its first edition in twenty years but that was largely because it violated a tight little set of rules applied by what amounted to an academy whose seat was at Boston..."
For about the next page Steinbeck discourses on the selling of one's writings and on the advisability of having a literary agent. He then continues: "...I promised myself when I started this that I was not going to give you any advice. I see I have already violated that in the preceding two paragraphs, and I am about to do it again. It has to do with the critico-writers you spoke of. They feel that anything amusing is a bad smell, that anything unneurotic and normal makes automatically for bad art. They are terrified of emotion either because they don't have any or because they can't handle it. They call any emotion 'sentimentality'...Ignore what anybody tells you to do. Write what you see and hear and think and feel and use any method you can achieve to get it into words. Don't be afraid of anyone, and above all, don't be afraid of failure...One last thing and then I am through. This is not advice, but rather a method I worked out a long time ago and it makes it much easier for me. I don't write for the faceless audience, or the nameless critical junta. I pick out one person, sometimes I make him up and sometimes it is some one I know. He, or she, is the reader and I write directly to that one person, trying to make sure that one person will understand. I find that this not only gives me a focal point but automatically cuts out fanciness or over statement...You can't please every one. Try to interest just one single person, or at least try to communicate with him or her. Some stories are best written to a woman. But never never write to a critic. A critic is a kind of underhanded competitor...You have very definite ability, good ears, good eyes and good feeling both for words and things. I guess all you need is work. It never gets easier and it never gets dull and if you feel you must do it, there isn't anything better."