I wrote a while ago about Steinbeck’s pencil obsession as described in his Journal of a Novel, the novel in question being East of Eden. At the end of it he writes a final letter to his editor Pascal Covici, which is described as the first draft of the dedication of the novel and  in it he quotes from the prologue of Don Quixote, describing Cervantes as the inventor of the modern novel. This is what Cervantes has to say:

“Idling reader, you may believe me when I tell you that I should have liked this book which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest and the cleverest that could be imagined, but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like …”

Steinbeck goes on to say something similar, that he has never ‘lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability…’ in the process of writing the book. And then continues:

“A book is like a man – clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.”

Photo by Luiz Fernando on

Writers are constantly negotiating this space between what they imagine they can create and what they end up creating and self-loathing and disappointment are a fairly common response to this gulf. It’s worth remembering that assessing one’s own work is a notoriously difficult thing to do. There’s also the irritating fact that finishing one book does not make writing the next one any easier. However accepting the likely presence of the wet and mangy mongrel may help you to keep going. 

I have never kept a diary of the writing of a book and I’ve been thinking recently that I might try. Even if it’s just a sentence a day. Even if I’m already 40,000 words in. But at what point of the day to write it? At the beginning? Or at the end? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll call it: Letters to the Wet and Mangy Mongrel. Truth is I’m more of a Heinz 57 type anyway. So maybe I’m half way there. Have you ever kept a diary of a creative project? What was the experience like? Was it helpful afterwards? Did you learn anything from it? 


  1. I’ll admit, I’ve never kept a diary of my writing experience, but I can certainly see how it might be really useful. If nothing else, it might help the writer chart growth and avoid repeating mistakes. This is a really interesting idea – thanks for sharing Steinbeck’s views on the process.

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  2. If I had kept a diary for either of my two books, it would have been hilarious to contrast the two. The first (a historical fiction work) took six years from start to publication… the second (a children’s book about a missing sock) took a year. Now, with the novel I am working on, I do find it necessary to step back and assess at regular intervals how I feel the development is coming– not simply how many pages there are. There is a difference between cranking out pages and carving out plots and characters!

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    • Hi Shiloh and many thanks for your comment. I imagine they were very different but I’m sure writing for children can be just as complex as for adults. I think I’m going to do it even though my current WIP is 40,000 words in. I do remember from my previous books that between 40-60,000 is the hardest because the hares I’ve set running at the beginning are all lying around exhausted and so some more have to come into play! Good luck with your own writing projects.

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