The Big Read Blog (Archive)

On Writing as a Precondition for Happiness

February 27, 2009
Washington, DC

"?it will all boil down to work. If I can write again then I can be happy again. I know I will put off doing it for fear it has all been drained out of me, although I don't for a moment believe that. Indeed, I feel the stirring of some power." -- John Steinbeck to his friend Bo Beskow, Pacific Grove, CA, Sept. 19, 1948

"If I can write again then I can be happy again."

Today, February 27 -- what would have been John Steinbeck's 107th birthday -- I catch myself falling for the man all over again. Reread that sentence of Steinbeck's, and listen to how it inverts all the conventional wisdom about writers and depression. He doesn't say, "If I can be happy again then I can write again." No, he puts the writing first, where I suspect it belongs. "If I can write again then I can be happy again."

Society has brainwashed us into thinking that writer's block is a symptom, not a cause. We look at the interrupted arc of, say, Dashiell Hammett's career -- the decade of apprenticeship, the five years of intense productivity, the long decades of sodden silence -- and we know the question we're supposed to ask. After The Thin Man, what kept him from finishing anything?

It was the drink. It was the success. It was New York. It was that mean Lillian.

It was all of that. It was none of that. Or was it depression? His father always was a little aloof...

Can I possibly be the first to ask whether we don't have it all exactly backwards? What if, one day, Hammett stopped writing for the most ridiculously trivial of reasons? Maybe he ran out of ribbon, and his motor wouldn't start. Could be. It doesn't really matter, because he wasn't lost yet. He could always just take the car into the shop tomorrow, and buy fresh ribbons by the cartonload.

No, I'm betting what killed him was the next day, when he fixed his Nash and got the ribbon home and then just idly wondered, innocent as a powderburn, what he should have written the day before. And later, if only to stop himself from wondering, that's when he took the drink. And got depressed, and went to New York, and all the rest of it.

Steinbeck understood this. He didn't believe that writer's block was a symptom of depression, any more than the flu is a symptom of sneezing. On the contrary, writer's block invites depression, at least for a writer, just as surely as sloth invites bedsores. And writing well isn't a byproduct of happiness, but a spell to summon it, and an amulet against its loss. "If I can write again then I can be happy again."

So here's mud, on his birthday, in John Steinbeck's undeceived eye. Like most writers, he could be streaky in both output and quality. But he never kidded himself that writing was anything other than what it is: a daily prayer for the ability to do it well.