Steinbeck, grapes, wrath, success, writing

I) Grapes

Here I was the other day in California’s San Joaquin Valley, with a crop buddy, after a day of picking grapes. It was 105 Fahrenheit (40 Celsius). I was drenched in toxic pesticides, which I was unable to avoid while picking.

What on earth was I doing there?

Well, it’s part of a little literary project, something longer-term. Can’t say much more yet.

We happened to be standing a few hundred yards away from the location of a Depression-era government camp for migrant farm workers which became the basis of John Steinbeck’s fictional Weedpatch Camp in his unforgettable novel The Grapes of Wrath. This was the camp that took in the Joad family and gave them brief respite from their harsh existence.

Was my location a coincidence? Not entirely. Nor was it entirely planned. (Sometimes, “accidents” help in the creative process.)

In any event, I took the occasion to re-read The Grapes of Wrath and also to read a bit about Steinbeck’s writing of it.

II) Writing

In 1963 Steinbeck said:

I wrote The Grapes of Wrath in one hundred days, but many years of preparation preceded it. I take a hell of a long time to get started. The actual writing is the last process.

This fits my own experience: The actual writing (sadly) is almost an afterthought, the easiest and most pleasant and shortest part of conception.

(But Steinbeck wrote longhand, of course. His 200,000-word manuscript took up 165 handwritten pages of a lined ledger book.)

Steinbeck apparently wrote fast, paying little or no attention to spelling, punctuation, or paragraphing. All that was cleaned up later. That, too, fits my experience.

III) Anger

In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck also said something else:

When I wrote The Grapes of Wrath, I was filled . . . with certain angers . . . at people who were doing injustices to other people.

And six years later, he told a British interviewer:

Anger is a symbol of thought and evaluation and reaction: without it what have we got? . . . I think anger is the healthiest thing in the world.

I had to think about that for a minute. But then this also fit my experience as a writer. Anger is a great motivational spur. It focuses the mind and leads to energetic storytelling. And isn’t writing a wonderful channel for anger to be released? Way better than any alternative, methinks.

IV) Success

Also of obvious interest to me (given that I’m writing a book about success and failure being impostors) was what the mind-boggling success of The Grapes of Wrath did to Steinbeck.

Critics, agents, publishers — the whole world naturally wanted him, as one said,

to write The Grapes of Wrath over and over again.

(That reactive and retroactive instinct in publishing also strikes me as familiar.)

But Steinbeck refused, saying that

The process of writing a book is the process of outgrowing it… Disciplinary criticism comes too late. You aren’t going to write that one again anyway. When you start another—the horizons have receded and you are just as cold and frightened as you were with the first one.

In another interview, he said that

I have always wondered why no author has survived a best-seller. Now I know. The publicity and fan-fare are just as bad as they would be for a boxer. One gets self-conscious and that’s the end of one’s writing.

Here, of course, I have nothing to add (not having scored a best-selling success yet). But it does rhyme beautifully with what Amy Tan said on the same subject.

Below, by the way, you see my perspective as I was picking grapes: I was crouching below the vines, because the best bunches grow in the middle and underneath. (“Low-hanging” fruit are not necessarily “easily picked’ fruit, I discovered.) And that tractor constantly moves alongside you. Several times I almost had my feet run over, and it banged into my shins so often that I could barely walk at night.

62 thoughts on “Steinbeck, grapes, wrath, success, writing

  1. I love grapes. How tragic that they cultivate and then waste the majority of the yearly crop for the production of a disgusting fermented liquid.

    I consider this a crime against … um … grapity? vinity?

    Whenever I want to buy grapes in the supermarket, how much selection do I have? One variety at the most.

    Go to your neighborhood liquor store, there are hundreds of different wines to choose from. Go to your fruit and vegetable market, you’re lucky they carry red and green ones, and forget about different kinds.

    Yes, it makes me very angry. I feel like writing a book now. Too bad the title Grapes of Wrath is taken already.

    • You are a misovinist, a wine hater, the only one I know. (I made that word up.)
      I wasn’t able to find out where the grapes I was picking were going. Raisins, I think. And table grapes.

    • I also find that anger sometimes helps sharpen my writing. I think it has to do with focus. Of course, if I have a little too much to drink my writing loses its edges and gets a little sloppy – I become more unfocused. I’m always amazed by the writers I hear about that write better while intoxicated.

      I do enjoy a delicious glass of wine though. I started as a regular chardonnay enthusiast, but after I took a wine/beverage course and experienced more reds my palette opened up to some more exciting blends and styles.

      Andreas, do you find alcohol ever opens up your creative palette?

    • I’m the only wine hater I know, too. I may be the only misovinist in the world. Perhaps I can make a career out of it. But the stuff does taste rotten to me, like grape juice that has gone bad, the equivalent of milk that has turned and triggers the spit reflex. And as a long-time waiter, I’ve had to endure numerous wine tastings and educational classes on the subject. I just don’t get it. It’s hopeless.

    • Yes, I like that quote. Or, a metaphor I’ve tried out: Equilibrium does not run a piston or a battery, you need a difference, a potential, a voltage, a disorder (=chaos) that wants to become order….

  2. Anger is healthy, how it is expressed may not necessarily be. Great writers do not write the same story repeatedly, hacks do. Steinbeck recognized that, I suspect. Repeating the hit seems the norm in music, though.

    I understand that some grape growers, probably mostly wine grape growers, are moving to olive trees.


    I agree to a certain degree but do enjoy variety in wine.

    • Re Steinbeck: He did actually write “the same story” for many years, both as non-fiction and fiction, and never liked the outcome until Grapes of Wrath. That was his preparation. Then, of course, he felt it was done.

  3. How delightful to hear about Steinbeck! He kept a notebook while he was writing East of Eden called Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters . He wrote, ” This book is the most difficult of all I have ever attempted. Whether I am good enough or gifted enough remains to be seen. … I have love and I have had pain. I still have anger but I can find no bitterness in myself…”
    I still love the passion and anger of Steinbeck–he taught us about the poor and dispossessed, and they are still with us. Anger’s a good thing. We need him now.

    • Welcome, Carrah. What a wonderful quote.

      “I have love and I have had pain. I still have anger but I can find no bitterness in myself…”

      Love + Pain + Anger – Bitterness = [Possibly a winning formula for life, no?]

  4. Was your crop buddy a Mexican? Near that camp for migrant workers that served Steinbeck as a starting point? Interesting, very interesting… I wonder what’s cooking in your head.

    Forgive me if I disregard those so called ‘accidents’ in the creative arena or in whatever area. Or to say it clearly: there are no accidents… for me, when it comes to writing. If revising or editing a text it always hits me how those presumed accidents ‘happen’ for a purpose, at least the way they come out in a page. Am I making any sense? Perhaps not. Surely not. Doesn’t matter.

    And I do agree: the force of anger has given us some of the best pages ever written.
    @Stazyk Love your remark.

    • Hi Ana.

      Yup, Mexican. I was the only “white” guy in the fields, as far as I could see. Except one or two white supervisors in white pick-up trucks.

      Re the ‘purpose’ of our creative ‘accidents’: The mystery lies in the way they retroactively seem pre-destined, necessary, inevitable when, really, at the time they were not.

  5. A nice article, Andreas; and one I can relate to personally. There’s a story about a folk-club I used to play in, in London, which I’ve been unable to write up to this point, but now I think I’m about ready to do it justice… and as fate would have it, I’ve just rediscovered one of the main characters: the guy that ran the folk-club has just contacted my through my blog… It must be an omen, I think!


  6. How often is the word “Anger” used out of laziness when the patience, thought or emotion is lacking to find a more suitable one?

    What happens to us when we are affected by the world – passion, adrenalin, impatience, inspiration, frustration, motivation, sense of injustice… ?

    Anger, temper and rage dull creation, are a poor medium of expression, come after these experiences and are more likely to be a destructive response to them. Try them and see. They are a hindrance, and only when they are overcome does anything of use emerge.

    • passion + adrenalin + impatience + inspiration + frustration + motivation + sense of injustice = ….

      …. Anger.


      Are we splitting hairs? Steinbeck wasn’t saying he was in favor of road rage.

  7. A coincidence. I was at the bookshop yesterday feeding my eyes (but ended up leaving with two books). “Grapes of Wrath” was one of those I stumbled upon. Not far away was a shelf filled with Amy Tan’s books.

    On success. I made a mental note to return for Steinbeck’s book as well as “Songs of Enchantment” the sequel to Ben Okri’s “Famished Road”. Yet I wondered if the hype of the latter (1991 Booker Prize etc) had overshadowed Okri’s subsequent works?

    And, anger is indeed a curious motivator. Writing lividly has produced some of my best articles, I think.

    PS: Looking forward to read more about your literary project

    • Welcome, tfagbule.
      Nice serendipity in the book store. Makes you think: How likely is it that Steinbeck and Tam are in the same section? Hmmm.
      Don’t know Okri’s book, unfortunately.

  8. @Richard: Thank you. I was holding back my anger comment -afraid I might sound angry. My comment:
    Just try and be really (openly) angry and let it be known. People fear anger. You’ll be ostracised, victimized, threatened and at risk of having your life ruined by neighbors and cops. Anger looks good on TV, but it may as well be illegal (and it doesn’t seem to change a thing). I reckon Steinbeck wasn’t lazy and one can only aspire to such anger. Luckily he didn’t have a blog to sublimate his great work.

    Re: The Grapes of Wrath. The used car salesman has lingered in my head longer than anyone else in the book. Pure evil.

    • Well, the two of you seem to be saying simply that one must be careful in CHANNELING the anger.

      But, since this came from Steinbeck after he wrote one of the great American classics of all time, can we agree that he … channeled his anger pretty damn well?

  9. If I recall correctly, the recent TIME magazine cover story on Jonathan Franzen quoted Franzen as saying that it was the “anger” he felt after his friend David Foster Wallace killed himself that provided the impetus for his latest novel. I read an extract from it on the New Yorker website and, come to think of it, his way of telling a story and the theme of the book was quite similar to Steinbeck’s.

    I often find that when I am angry I am more eloquent. On such occasions I find myself saying exactly what I mean in precisely the words I want. I should write them down next time and see if something comes of it.

    • Interesting. I might read Franzen’s new novel. Heard good things about it.

      Perhaps the key ingredient to inject into the anger fuel is DELAY. Steinbeck, Franzen… they got angry, but then planned, waited, structured, researched. And THEN they wrote a book.

    • Actually, in Franzen’s case the anger came after the delay. But the delay was there, nonetheless. According to the article he’d been tussling with his ideas for the novel for about seven years, and the anger made him finally sit down and write it. So, like Steinbeck, he channelled the energy from his anger into writing the book.

  10. I know exactly what you are cooking up, but I shall keep it to myself. 🙂 But I’ll wager a bet that if I am right in December, I am sent a lifetime subscription to the Economist. You’ll just have to trust me that I am being honest.

    I taught this novel for over 25 years. Each character and scene are rife with layer upon layer of meaning for all.

    We spent much time on the interchapters…an article might be fascinating with modern reporting and then an “interchapter of sorts”.

    The jalopy chapter has rhythm and bounce, but the roadkill chapter with the tortoise crossing the highway–some swerve, some go for the direct hit–has stayed in my heart all my life. The cruelty of it all; the sanity of it all.

    Finally, I’d just like to say that I had a special treat last May: I saw Steinbeck’s manuscript of Cannery Row. ( Sorry for the name dropping but it was the experience of a lifetime, so I am just sharing) You might be interested in knowing that he wrote it out on yellow legal type paper without much change. His handwriting was small and symmetrical. I sat by myself with the manuscript and forgot to breathe.

    I stood up, turned around, and wept.

    • Alright, you are on record as having wagered. We will return to said bet at the expiry date you have attached to it. 🙂

      I am absolutely fascinated by the process that the classics, from Herodotus to Steinbeck, wrote. Personally, I cannot imagine NOT being able to cut, paste, drag paragraphs with a mouse, try things at the bottom of a page without fear of rewriting the entire top…..

      How DID they do it?

  11. So, as you probably noticed, I’ve reverted (for the time being) to the threaded comment mode (only one level deep).

    I realized that if I want to reply to each or most of you, I’d have to write one HUGE comment, with lots of @NAMEs, whcih would be tedious to read.

    Or I’d have to reply RIGHT AWAY (in time), which I can’t do because, you know, I have a day job.

    So let’s try threading again. But let’s not have one mega thread that pushes all others down to a place where nobody would ever see them.

    If you have better ideas for how to do this, speak up.

    And: Can we have a moment here for WordPress? I mean, how great is it that I have these options. You Blogspot people tell me that this doesn’t even exist over there…. 😉

  12. “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, `Would he had blotted a thousand.’” — Ben Jonson

    Were his plays first drafts?

    • Well, now we’d all like to see the precise list of lines that Ben Johnson would have blotted out.

      Fun to speculate about WHAT draft, whether first or other, Shakespeare’s plays might have been. I seem to recall that there are theories that Shakespeare (like Homer) may in fact have been several people working together….

  13. Do we say, then, that the only label we can attach to the fiercest, deepest, most far-reaching and most creative experiences and emotions is “anger”? Seems a bit thin.

    A surge of indignation, wild irrationality, an insatiable urge to speak up and silence detractors and a will to act all well up inside me at this abomination.

    I could tip over into anger, but I must not. Ever seen a street fight develop? Angry words, angry fists, angry knives.

    Anger is primitive, monochrome and regressive.

    • It’s a matter of focus then? Channeling the anger, as Andreas mentioned above, into something constructive. Anger suggests passion and passion is not so bad when writing.

    • I disagree. I look at anger as a symptom, an indicator, of passion. Unwarranted anger is a destructive force, I think, but not all anger is unfocused. Let me try an analogy… I play golf (not pro quality, mind you, just the basic 14 handicap or so). When I play poorly (which may be better than some others), I get angry at myself. The anger is a symptom of both my passion for the game and my frustration in not executing it well. If I allow the anger to remain unfocused (at myself in general), I will continue to play poorly. If I channel that anger, focus it on the flaws in my game that day, then I can improve my performance. I think the same can be applied to any endeavor, even to relationships.

  14. Anger is indeed a one way street to destruction. Most of us confuse anger and aggressivity. Aggressivity is a two way street, it can be destructive and it can be constructive. It is a drive to doing more things in a better way when harnessed and put to work.
    Steinbeck may have been an angry man but he controled that anger and channelled it through aggressively writing about what made him angry.
    Writing angry makes for useless rants, writing aggressively makes great litterature.

  15. In your piece here Andreas, you put the spotlight on anger’s effect on the writer, but I try to examine its effect on the reader in my blog post on the nature of argument. Hope you and readers find it interesting. I’d be curious to hear some responses.

    • I have read your post, Dan

      What does barely indistinguishable mean? I was distracted by this, but not attracted. Perhaps at this point you were stricken with anger, perhaps not.

      A flaw,maybe, an assumption, perhaps.

      Paul’s argument is a nicely reasoned observation on the whole issue. It is fair. I accept it and reject my own. I benefit. Let us, though, say for a moment (falsely) that aggression is synonymous with anger. Does a personal attack on a participant enhance an associated argument? Does it distract or detract? Does it attract or repel? Does it create or destroy? Are these absolute or relative values?

    • Your blog post was interesting. It is true that, at times, a flaw can be attractive by distracting. Just as you’ve shown with the conception of beauty. On that note, I recall reading someone deconstruct Sophia Loren’s beauty, pointing out that her attributes were all “flaws” if looked at separately.But I have a problem with a flaw in an argument being solely distracting. A flaw in an argument is, to me, like a flaw in a math problem. It does not merely distract, it misleads, and results an incorrect solution.

      I think we are running into connotation problems with “anger”, “aggression”, and “passion”.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! @ Richard, since this is a thought experiment and we’re picturing arguments in the abstract it’s difficult for me to answer specifically what “barely indistinguishable” means. The arguments could be on any topic, after all. But just imagine reading a bunch of pretty by the book arguments for any topic you imagine. Maybe the essays are a constructed similar to a philosophical arguments with Premise 1, Premise 2 gets you to Logical Conclusion or something like that, but one stands out by starting out with a humorous but imprecise anecdote. Maybe you can better imagine what I’m talking about if you think of a bunch of true arguments that just don’t stand out in any appreciable way – that doesn’t mean they’re logically wrong.

      @Douglas, glad you found it interesting. Thanks for sharing that about Sophia Loren. About flaws in argument: I actually agree to a certain extent with your feelings. I wasn’t trying to make a judgment about this tendency in arguments, just an observation. That’s partly why I included Matt Yglesias’s complaint. These flaws often make the argument weaker but opinion journalism editors still seek them out – I was investigating why. So even though flaws frequently mislead, that is acceptable (encouraged by?) to editors.

    • @Dan
      It took me a bit but I finally saw the flaws of an argument as something which, in some way, made the argument “sexier”, more intriguing.

    • I note, Dan, that you have removed “barely” from your post and replaced it with “practically”.
      You have me in a tizwoz. What kind of thought experiment has practical considerations. These things niggle me and until I have some vestige of understanding I am inadequate to comment on your blog.

  16. Richard, aggression is the expression, the materialization, of anger. Aggression is an act, aggressivity is a pulsion and can be positive or negative depending on how it is enacted.
    As for the “ad hominem (feminem)” argument in a discussion, when done in anger, it usually shows the weakness of the attacker…but then we are in the realm of subjectivism here and nothing is absolute.

  17. “There were moments when I simply lost it, and that had never happened to me as a reporter. I felt that I had to figure out what was going on and why I was sometimes unable to hang on to my emotions. I’m a fairly controlled person, so when I got mad, it was very disconcerting. I wasn’t sure it was at all productive, but I think I felt the need in this play and then the documentary to reveal how it had actually affected me. ”

    – Frank Wright on his book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11”

    PS: Wrath is a synonym for anger. Is Wright’s book one more proof of the the fruit of anger?

    • Good quote, tfagbule.

      Is wrath a synonym for anger? You’ve got rage, fury, wrath, anger, choler, ire, irritation, peevedness (does that exist?),….

      So perhaps it’s a spectrum.

      (Obviously, I used ‘wrath’ in my title here because of Steinbeck.)

      Regarding ‘aggression’: You guys are using that above, but to me aggression is either an act, as opposed to a state, or a proclivity, a leaning that makes somebody more likely to become angry and act on it.

      You can have a good reason to be angry. It’s harder to have a good reason to be aggressive. No?

  18. I’m of the same mind as Richard regarding anger. It hurts the bearer.
    “What anger wants it buys at the price of soul.” Heraclitus

    • Let me ask, Geraldine, is anger at injustice hurtful? How about anger at political dismissveness? Anger at one’s spouse because of a real (not imagined) slight? How about anger at oneself for a lack of ambition or fortitude? Anger, I think, can be productive if it induces a positive change.

  19. Douglas. Yes. My answer is that anger is always wrong even in all those situations you describe because anger interferes with reason. Anger can always generate action but if action is needed it should be in the absence of anger. Anger is not a requisite for positive change and even when it induces positive change it still hurts the bearer.

    I believe the true feeling behind anger is empathy, but, empathetic understanding of plight gone wild (within oneself) reduces noble empathy to anger and puts reason in peril.

    • Good answers, Geraldine. I do not view anger the same way, obviously. I think that you may be confusing having anger with acting in anger. Or, put another way, confusing the emotion with the action taken. Certainly, in many cases, the anger results in action that harms both the angry person and/or the target of the anger. But I think we need the emotion. It underlies passion, it spurs action. Without it, we risk ignoring injustice and harm by others to others. We are human, after all. Some say that anger produces physical harm to the purveyor. I tend to think that repressing that anger does the harm. Learn to cope and focus the anger will have the opposite effect. Perhaps you recall something called Primal Scream Therapy? The concept was to release and then deal with repressed trauma (sublimated anger) through a generalized expression of that anger. I guess what I am saying is that it is not the anger that does the harm, it’s how we deal with or react to it.

  20. I was once told that anger was a secondary emotion; one to avoid further pain. That behind anger was one, or sometimes both, of two primary emotions: Fear and hurt.

    The fact that people recur to anger and not to the expression of what they really feel is due to a lack of trust in the interest and validation of/from other people of their primary experience.

    To avoid adding the slight of being ignored to the initial hurt, the amygdala, the minute nervous bundle designed to keep us out of harms way through fight or flight, sends the dog, and not the philosopher, to stop the pain; and tone and not content, strength and not reason is called upon in defense of that suspicion.

    Anger, in this context, becomes a sign of distrust…often warranted, sometimes mistaken.

    An understanding of this hierarchy can become a doorway back to intimacy.

    Many authors may seek to overcome their anger by writing their hurt.

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