Ever heard of John Steinbeck? Ever read Of Mice and Men? East of Eden? Or how about Grapes of Wrath? There’s a good chance you have. Grapes of Wrath was required reading in many institutions of higher learning and sold over 14 million copies. John Steinbeck, Pulitzer prize-winning mid-century author, wrote 33 books during his life; many of them considered classics. He was midstream another novel when he died at 66 years of age in 1968 of heart disease. Two things he did all his life; he wrote books and smoked cigarettes.
I love to read John Steinbeck’s books. He wrote about what he observed, the people he met, and others he imagined. But it was his keen insight into the complexity of human behavior that made his characters vibrant, believable, and memorable. Steinbeck had an incredible talent for telling stories that kept the reader turning the page.
It is unlikely that John Steinbeck considered retirement. He did act retired once when, in 1960, he purchased a pickup truck, had a camper custom-built, and traveled across the country with his poodle. He wrote about his travels in a way only Steinbeck could. The result was ‘Travels With Charley: In Search of America’ published in 1962.
My father considered retirement, but he didn’t believe in it. At least not in the traditional sense. But he did change his course a tad when he reached his 60s. He started to write. He wrote a novel and a book on his growing up in war-torn Holland. Then came a book on business success, and a book on coping with Multiple Sclerosis, a disease he suffered from.
He’d often write while doing retirement things like cruising through the Queen Charlotte Islands on his way to Alaska. He would use his time on the deck, peering for a Canadian bear scavenging the shoreline and working out the next twist to his novel. And if his creative juices were in full flow, he’d forgo the excursion to the trinket shops of Juneau and type furiously with just two fingers. That was how he typed. His eyes would dart back and forth from keyboard to screen, and his two index fingers would pump up and down like twin pistons on a gasoline engine. It was mechanical until you read what he wrote. I can still see him. I swear you could see exhaust curling from his ears.
My father died coming up on a year ago. He never reached the literary success of a Steinbeck. Few will. But writing became an enjoyable past time for him. He had the time, and he enjoyed picking his cranial cavity, digging out some idea to write about. Or some memory that tickled his funny bone sending his index fingers pumping. Writing gave his outsized imagination expression.
With each book, new relationships were forged. It brought him great joy to get an email from a reader who related to the story, or experience, or to his imagination. Friendships were made. Sometimes renewed. For someone who disliked ‘small-talk’ and perhaps a bit of an introvert, these relationships allowed him to forget some of his physical discomforts and avoid loneliness.
For someone who enjoyed a good, deep think, the kind that found him staring off into infinity, he found that writing would clarify his musings. Writing does that. It helps organize the sometimes random nature by which we collect ideas and memories.
It is possible that in the back of his mind, he was wanting to leave a morsel of himself for future generations. Something his great-grandchildren might find worthy of a chew if they ever reach their ‘where am I from’ stage. And it certainly is true if you want to know something about the life and times of my father, read his books. Particularly his novel.
Much of what he wrote was autobiographical. They are good reads too. But if you really want to know someone, read a novel they wrote. Inside you’ll get a glimpse of how they view life by how they gave breath to the characters they created and the story they weaved. The fighter pilot who barely escaped death to find tender love upon his return from the front lines. If the book is a love story (which my father’s book was), then you’ll get a sense of what love meant to the author. Even in our fantasies, we can’t help but reveal our inner selves. Some might find that chilling. I happen to be grateful that he left that part of him. I see him every time I read him. His temple pulsating with each inspiration.
Some may tell you to write your life story. Something that starts at the very beginning and works its way to the present. Splatter some pictures around, and future generations will treasure it like a bag of 1890’s silver dollars. There’s nothing wrong with a good life story. Writing anything is better than writing nothing. But some might prefer the bag of silver.
It is easy for me to suggest that you write a novel. But writing one is not easy. Beyond a willingness to share your imagination, thinkings, and memories, writing requires a certain discipline. One must sit at a computer and pound away while conjuring up all sorts of twists and turns and the color of Aunt Tilly’s hair and if she set the barn on fire or not. And if you’re of the mind that retirement should only be about doing easy things, then a novel is perhaps not in your future. But if you find yourself intrigued by the idea, please consider this one piece of advice;
- Then do it.
That’s what my father would tell you. Then do it. One keystroke at a time, and soon some part of you will spill out. Your imagination will catch a wave and your first chapter will set the stage for the next one. You too may find yourself staring into the crevice of some long lost but fascinating memory. Some character you observed that left you scratching your graying scalp. That distant memory can then grow into a yarn of a story that must see the light of day.
It is possible that if John Steinbeck hadn’t died at such an early age, he would still be traveling the byways of America. As each milepost ticked by on his way back to Salinas, his brain would be working out the plot. With the pickup truck window open and a cigarette dangling from his smiling, satisfied lips, he’d reach over and give Charley a good scratch. It would have been his best novel yet.