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? 


In 1951 while writing the first draft of East of Eden John Steinbeck wrote a letter a day to his editor Pascal Covici. It gives an insight into his thought processes, as he is actually writing the book. In one entry he said this:

It occurs to me that everyone likes or wants to be an eccentric and this is my eccentricity, my pencil trifling.

pencil pencils stationary equipment

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On March 23rd Good Friday Steinbeck was clearly obsessed not with plot or character but his pencils. 

You know I am really stupid. For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good one’s but never the perfect one.  And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is alright one day is no good another day. For example yesterday I used a special pencil, soft and fine, and it floated over the paper most wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper.

He goes on to say he has three types of pencils for hard writing days and soft writing days. Then he says:

I have also some super soft pencils which I do not use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them. And I am not often that way.

As delicate as a rose petal – how lovely! One day stabbing and  breaking and one day soft and delicate. 

When in my normal writing position the metal of the pencil eraser touches my hand I retire that pencil. Then Tom and Catbird (his children) get them.

Oh, and how he loves his electric pencil sharpener:

I have never had anything that I used more and was more help to me. To sharpen the number of pencils I use every day … by a hand sharpener would not only take too long but would tire my hand out. 

As a writer, it is all too easy to fetishize the tools of your trade and indulge in magical thinking along the lines of:

“If only I had that beautiful note book/pen/pencil/cabin in the wood/tree house/house by the sea/lake/Lake Como actually, No, make that a palazzo in Venice/ oh no wait what about mountains? Actually just give me a garden, any garden.” Then I would write a masterpiece.

Looking out onto the street, outside my window I’m currently looking at a smashed TV screen and some plastic bottles rolling in the gutter. Usually I’m also looking at the backs of BT engineers fiddling with wires in those green street cabinets. I worry about their knees. The overground part of the District Line is about 15 meters away. I live on a main road. Someone is usually drilling somewhere very loudly along the road. This is where I’ve written all my books.

There’s the odd occasion when I long for a house with a sea view. When it was 35 degrees for a few days in a row this summer and they were tarmacking the road directly outside, the noise and the heat were such that I got to thinking about where I would live if I won the lottery – Iceland came to mind – but that’s rare. I write where I live like most writers, for better or worse.

And I’m sure you realise that I’d never do anything as crass as buy certain types of pencils thinking they might turn me into a Nobel Prize winner. Oh, no…

Whoops, I’m definitely feeling the metal here! One for the kiddies I think…

Steinbeck used Blackwing pencils and if you’d like to take a look at their very desirable website here it is. They even produced some lovely purple ones last month in honour of the passing of the 19th Amendment and women getting the vote in America on August 18th 1920.

What are the tools of your trade? Do you have a favourite?


Where Eagles Dare

Richard Burton doing a bit of bird spotting


It was my first author event and the bottle of Rescue Remedy I had glugged down on the train was not having the desired effect on my nerves. I was one of five or six new crime writers sitting in front of a large audience in Heffers Bookshop  in Cambridge. One of our number had been published slightly earlier than the rest of us and was therefore an old hand. Although already in the bookshop, he had taken his seat last, strolling through the audience like Billy Graham (BG) at a revivalist meeting.

The first question we were asked was about writers who had influenced us. BG went first and expounded at length on John Steinbeck.

What, not dear Agatha, or Dorothy, or Margery? I mused.

Suddenly, I didn’t like the look of my choices anymore. They looked a bit lack lustre. Not very Nobel Prize-ish. I began to race through other options: Bukowski? B.S. Johnson? Dostoevsky? Chandler? Hammett? The only trouble (apart from the alarming sex-change of my influences) was that I could determine absolutely no link between my writing and theirs. To claim it would have been laughably arrogant not to mention misleading.

Then I remembered Sara Paretsky, the progenitor of the female private investigator novel. A writer I very much like and admire. But I immediately realised that I had no idea how to pronounce the name of her main character, V. I. Warshawski. Try it yourself now and then imagine saying it in front of a large audience with your heart beat skipping along at the rate of a marathon runner on her last legs. I knew that if I attempted that I would sound like a woman with a sock filled with marbles in her mouth.

And then I heard those rough-gruff tones of Richard Burton: ‘Broardsword calling Danny Boy, are you receiving?’ Well, yes I was. Loud and clear. Thank you very much, Richard.

And I saw a young man with a quiff (not Clint Eastwood although he does sport a very fine quiff in Where Eagles Dare), a white dog and an irascible, sweary captain. The audience was looking at me expectantly.

Captain Haddock meets Tintin for the first time in Herge's The Crab with the Golden Claws

Captain Haddock meets Tintin for the first time in Herge’s The Crab with the Golden Claws

‘Alistair Maclean and Tintin,’ I blurted out.

BG looked bemused. I can’t remember much of what I said after that. No doubt something about the importance of pace and whizzing along, throwing a few jokes in there to keep the reader going and remembering that they may be reading you on the train on the way to work and just before they fall asleep so it’s important to ENTERTAIN THEM and KEEP THEIR ATTENTION! I gabbled and whizzed along myself.

BG went on to win prizes and occupy platforms all by himself; I went off to contemplate my influences and do a course on public speaking.

Here are some questions to end on.

1. Where does the quotation at the beginning of the post come from? Clue: Not a bad influence to claim!

2. Who or what has influenced you? High brow or low brow – in art or in life?