A sweet, strong smell of truth


I had just finished a short biography of John Steinbeck and was tired and sleepy. It didn’t take me long to fall asleep and seemed only moments until I felt the soft tapping on my shoulder. “Wake up, let’s talk.” I looked up, bleary eyed and looked into the face of an older and tired looking man. I instantly recognized his sensitive blue eyes and neatly trimmed mustache. “John? John Steinbeck?”

“Let’s talk. Look I know you think you know something about me. But you don’t. I haven’t quite figured it out myself out , much less you doing it. And you need to do something.” He waited as I knuckled the sleep out of my eyes. “First of all, take me down from the pedestal, I didn’t ask to be put there and I don’t want to be there, it’s both boring and tiring. Second, stop trying to think you want to be me, start being who you are.”

“But I want to be a better writer.” My words sounded pathetic even to me.

“So you’re going to whine about it or are you going to do something about it?”

“I’m not sure how.”

He looked across the dark bedroom and out at the darkness of the sky. “You want some magic formula, you want some quick action pill? Maybe you want God to reach down and fill you with the magic. How about you get off your tired ass and go about doing the work of getting better.”

“But I remember what you once wrote about wanting to be better. What did you do to get better, to become John Steinbeck?”

Again another look of disgust. “I was always John Steinbeck. I just had to trust myself.” He paused and then added, “and I worked my ass off to be better.”

Then he was gone. I was alone in my dark bedroom. I turned on the lamp, picked up the biography I’d just finished and reread the last two pages. He had written about the development of American Literature and compared some of our great authors to the ancient greats. I got to the line that had stopped me cold. The message of his writing was clear. He compared our countries greats to other greats and concluded – “… like them, it has the sweet, strong smell of truth.” And then I knew the answer.

The Nobel Committee said this about Steinbeck’s writing, and why he won the Prize for Literature. – “For his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.”

Words once written by John Steinbeck regarding his self-doubts. “Wish to God I could learn to write as I would like to write. I fall so damn short every time. But I’ll keep plugging and damn it – one day I’ll maybe turn up something.”

Go Well, David