Don’t read Steinbeck

I read Steinbeck again.

I’d left him lonely on the shelf for years, happy in the knowledge that he was and always would be my favourite. But the TV reminded me so sharply of Cannery Row, the favourite of my favourites, that I had to pick him up again after all this time.

As I sank into the poem and the stink of the very first page every word I’ve written in the last week, year, lifetime was called before me to explain itself, to explain why it deserves its place when seventy years before far better words than it would ever be had already graced the page. The rhythm, the motion, the bounce bounce bounce in stark contrast to the two left feet that stuttered through my fingers to keyboard to screen. His words dance accusingly, taunting me, telling me that every sentence of mine that flits and skips half formed through the half light and the half sleep as I doze, late nights and early mornings, will take form already twisted and lifeless and strangled. Telling me that when, in the cold light of day, I try to give those phrases shape that I’ll give them not shape but weight and that weight will bring them crashing to the page, unrecognisable and lumpen.

And as his dance and spin and pirouette across the page, the chapter, the book, mine all march in serried ranks to a single bom bom beat, jerkily goosestepping like the marionettes they are, only imitating life, not living it. Every hop, skip, jump, every chasse and twirl that his words take illuminates another path across the page another spark another thought another place for the mind to rest exhilarated, exhausted. And yet on mine go, like clockwork, wound up, let go, only stopping when their way is blocked or they run out of steam or God forbid they keep on until they fall off the end of the world. Oh how much mine feel like his when they’re in my head, dancing like nobody’s watching, for nobody is watching, then, in the comfort of gently snoring cats and wives, the pillows and the duvets and the crack in the curtains where the light gets in. But come the morning and the coffee and the thousand words today stagefright takes them and their intricate ballet becomes something only a mother could love.

And while my words struggle with the breakfasts and lunches and dinners of the everyday, with the waking and pissing, shitting and sleeping, with the what we wear and the where we work his, his are screaming across the sky, contrails laid out behind them, sound barrier broken. While mine stare at their feet his glare at the stars, defiant, daring, telling them all life is here, all life and more.

Don’t read Steinbeck if you’re trying to write.

At best it will tempt you to leaden imitation.