I think there is only one book to a man. It is true that a man may change or be so warped that he becomes another man and has another book but I do not think that it is so with me.
— John Steinbeck, Journals of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters
East of Eden was the first book that I read by Steinbeck. It was moving and well written and rich with characters. Then I discovered Journals of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters and suddenly I felt I had been given a back stage pass to the mind of a writer.
Steinbeck had already written Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) when he set out to write East of Eden (1951). In the intervening years he lived through two divorces and served as a war correspondent. Despite the critical success of his earlier works, his standing as a major novelist had faded. As today’s quote reveals, Steinbeck also felt that he had not yet told the one story that was within him. His editor, Pascal Covici, did all that he could to encourage Steinbeck. Covici sent Steinbeck a number of notebooks and instructed Steinbeck to use them to write.
Once, while directing the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Conroy scolded a student for using irrelevant details in her short story. He said…
The author makes a tacit deal with the reader. You hand them a backpack. You ask them to place certain things in it — to remember, to keep in mind — as they make their way up the hill. If you hand them a yellow Volkswagen and they have to haul this to the top of the mountain…
The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.
— Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I actually sent this quote to an internal recruiter once. I had been through several interviews with the company and it seemed that I was progressing towards a job offer. I was excited about the company and it looked to me to be a very good fit.
And then came that one final interview with one of the partners. Within the first fifteen seconds of our conversation I knew that an offer would not be forthcoming. It was clear that she had already made up her mind before the call even began. When the recruiter called a few days later to say that the firm had decided to not move forward I was deeply puzzled.
Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, you will be a mile away and he won’t have any shoes.
How could I resist? After yesterday’s exhortation to embrace empathy, it seemed only fitting to also quote a brilliant variation on the old moccasins quote.
It turns out that the above quote is a perfect example of a paraprosdokian – a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe the first part. Other good examples include my previous post from Ellen DeGeneres or my all time favorite, “When I die I want to go peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather did . . . and not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.”
The severest test of a character is not so much the ability to keep a secret as it is when the secret is finally out, to refrain from disclosing that you knew it all along.
I suspect that this principle of character also applies to the ability to refrain from chiming in when someone in the room is explaining something and you can’t resist what you think is a better explanation. I know that is certainly one of my challenges.