Steinbeck and ‘the craft of writing’.

Lately I keep stumbling over a John Steinbeck quote.  The first time I saw it, I liked it.  He said:

Ideas are like rabbits.  You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.

It’s taken from the opening of an interview he did with Robert van Gelder for Cosmopolitan in 1947, which was reproduced along with some other conversations about his publication history, in a book: Conversations with John Steinbeck in 1988.

I see the attraction of posting this metaphor on visual mediums, and marrying it to cosy and comic rabbit images.  And, that key word, ‘ideas’ is applicable to so much more than writing.  I’m not surprised it’s become popular.


Detail of the Blagojce Stojanovki mural in Salinas, California, photograph by David A. Laws

Yet, the more I thought about how the rest of those words fit together, the less useful it seemed.

What Steinbeck threw at us so casually, ‘and learn how to handle them‘, takes me back to my earliest thoughts about writing, the belief that there was a closely, maybe jealously, guarded secret to creating fiction, known only to a privileged few.  I used to envision it as a formula, perhaps a recipe, that once learned would produce instant success.

That second sentence seems to speak to those who already know the secret, or the beginning of it.  It describes something already understood, rather than explains to the novice.  It made me wonder what the context for the quote was.

A quick search brought up the original interview, and I soon found another segment to add to the metaphor:

Each of his books has represented to him a stage in his own growth and when the book is completed he feels that he is through with that stage. ‘A good thing too.  I don’t want to write the same book over and over.’

Steinbeck went on to talk of ‘the craft of writing’ as something that had to be practised.  He said that it needed commitment.  Then he referred to the difficulties he’d had.  They’re not the same as mine, nor was his approach to writing.

Steinbeck writes his books in his head.  He remarked that if he made notes he’d probably lose them anyway.  He plans his stories even to the dialogue  and when he starts writing he makes very fast progress, keeping up a pace of twenty-five hundred words a day.

Insights like this helped me to overcome that idea that there is a simple set of rules to good writing.  I like ‘the craft of writing’ better than the rabbits.  In my experience, rabbits frequently multiply because their keepers have not learned how to identify and separate does from bucks.

Sometimes a quote needs to be seen in context.





9 thoughts on “Steinbeck and ‘the craft of writing’.

  1. Precisely Cath,. Sometimes the very best quotes are spoiled when put into proper context

    As I expect you know, in the 80s a group called Prefab Sprout celebrated the power of context-free quotation in a song called Electric Guitars

    As far as rules of writing are concerned, from a brief survey of books I personally think are good, it looks as though any “rules” should be treated like the Pirate’s Code – mere guidelines to be freely and frequently ignored.

    The craft of writing sums it up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, I somehow missed Prefab Sprout…not sure how. Nice connection, thanks for directing me.
      I’d go even further than your summing up on Guidelines. I suspect they have evolved only through re-interpretation – though I’m aware that creates a sort of chicken and egg scenario. Hmm, food for thought that.


  2. Good discussion and insights Cath.

    I wonder if his learning how to handle them is similar to ‘finding the voice’ in which they can be addressed. Possibly voice is just about authorial uniqueness, but your article brought that to mind.

    Thanks for sharing.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading. It’s such a big subject, but I like to scratch the surface, because there are usually even more interesting layers just beneath. I think you’ve hit on something that links in: seems to me that ‘voice’ is part of the process of developing craft.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque might seem out of context here, but, in songwriting terms, they are exemplary of the finest Prefab Sprout lyrics. Steinbeck’s statement, sparse as it is, bears no secret or hidden meaning. I would read his admonition about learning to use ideas, as a reference to the necessity to practice, practice and when you’re finished practicing, practice, again


  4. Pingback: Thoughts on Steinbeck and writing – Postcard from a Pigeon

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