Wow. My simplified reaction to this letter written by John Steinbeck in 1962 to his English professor. It had been forty years since she had taught him at Stanford, and he reflected in retrospect on how real life compared to her insights. Actually, the insights went both ways. What she had taught him to expect from his efforts to master the craft of short story writing, and what he learned as life’s experience taught him how very wise his teacher had been.

I think her take on the way short stories develop themselves, get written, and only then can be examined and understood holds true today. And a new century, with its ever faster and smarter computers having long overtaken her world of typewriters and erasers, hasn’t really brought significant change to the fact that it takes a person with literary dreams a long time to grow into an accomplished writer of short stories. Of course she wasn’t talking about that kind of time, and probably never imagined the glorious tools writers of today take for granted, but one would think that the faster and easier physical writing becomes, the faster the writer would grow into his true talent, assuming he has any. It’s about a lot more than the kind of time clocks tick away, though.

The mind works on its own timetable and provides an environment for the growth of talent, much as a hothouse provides the proper conditions for exotic flowers to bloom outside their natural environment. Even with the ultimate amount of time and nurturing, talent real and deep is a delicate mechanism and may never flourish. When it truly does it is every bit as remarkable as a hothouse bloom that beats the odds to become a thing of rare beauty.

Steinbeck obviously had an advantage in the form of his teacher’s wisdom and ability to impart it successfully. I’m glad he expressed his appreciation and gratitude to that remarkable woman, because I think in reading his eloquent letter, I’ve learned something of value from both of them.

Advertisements