Nobel Prize Winner Burns Journals. Writer's Rebellion?

 Photo by  Xiaohang Zhang  on  Unsplash
I feel that I have put something over. That this little success of mine is cheating. I don’t seem to feel that any of it is any good. All cheating.
— John Steinbeck

Standards Beyond Reach?

So full of fear that others would peer too closely into his private life, John Steinbeck burned his entire stacks of personal journals. No matter how many books he published, how many movies he inspired...he would forever squirm at eyes such as mine. Looking at the awkward process by which a faulty human works out life. 

Might we all claim the same anthem?

I'm not finished yet.  Don't look at me! 

Forever the observer of others...and yet, not wanting to be observed ourselves.  

But perhaps this betrayal of self isn't as emotionally avoidant as it appears.  Perhaps it is as it should be.  For every human that has ever touched the tender contemplation of life knows...

when we gaze at the world, we find our own reflection


The Curious Nature of Contemplation

What did Steinbeck see in this reflection..huddled as a child in an upstairs room, pen in hand, watching life play out below? And must we, the ones who also find introspection necessary to daily existence, follow his example?  Casting ourselves in the role of outliers, while secretly longing to be seen. 

It was a role that Steinbeck wore throughout his life.  Beginning in grammar school, when he skipped a grade, only to find isolation with older peers.  Carried into high school where reclusive scribblings were punctuated rarely by social occasions.  For he preferred the silence of a solo walk in the countryside as many writers do. 

And finally, on into his university days, although he had adopted a wider sphere of friends, he would eventually decide...that he just didn't fit. Academic and social expectations were not for him.

Which brings us back to Steinbeck's journals. 

Despite his deep discomfort in his own skin, he took steps to manage an overactive inner critic.  Intuitively knowing that personal entries in a journal work at a far different level than writing for publication.  While both have their value, research shows that nothing can substitute for an unfiltered and unobserved session of life-puke.

...participants high in expressiveness evidenced a significant reduction in anxiety at three-month follow-up, and participants low in expressiveness showed a significant increase in anxiety
— Andrea N. Niles, et. al.

A New Way of Looking at Personal Reflection

But if the golden pages of our journals hold such hope for personal development, why do we still see Steinbeck struggling with feelings of insecurity and separation throughout life?  And why do our own vexing blocks and limitations continue to flare?

Because we are human.

What if we looked at journaling not as a measure of life's gains. Not as a comparison to others who did this and didn't do that.  But as the chosen ritual of vulnerable, yet hopeful, humans whose thoughts stream through our pens for only one reason. 


"You don’t act to gain look in order to understand." 


John Steinbeck


What if our very purpose in THE PROCESS?

What if we can't get it wrong?  What if there are only experiences that we would like to repeat, and experiences we would not like to repeat?  What if we lived lives so simply that observation and reflection are the key to managing our interim stages with wisdom and grace. PS Every day is an interim stage.

Then all we would have to do is........STAY AWAKE.

Awareness is Key to Trustworthy Observation

But what is awareness?  

It's about being awake to the subtleties of life.  Noticing how your body reacts when you want to say no, but you say yes instead.  Noticing when you feel strangely empty, but push blindly forward.  Noticing that you criticize more than celebrate.  Avoid rather than listen. 

Always cashing in bits of uncertainty for the illusion of security.

Thankfully, awareness is a learned skill. In my own process of journaling, it is the very first step. The foundation on which all personal reflection is built. Because without awareness, we will only skim the surface of life, and miss the very treasures of our own souls.

What does AWARENESS look like in a Personal Journal? Ask Steinbeck.

  • PAUSE-Face the gap. Acknowledge specific and general discomfort. 

Here, Steinbeck addresses a feeling of general discomfort. "I feel that I have put something over. That this little success of mine is cheating."  He's not sure why he feels like a fraud, but he acknowledges the feeling. (Your body will thank you for releasing such thoughts rather than storing them in your cells.)

  • OBSERVE-Allow your story to exist as it is, raw and real. No filters, no fixing.

He doesn't wax poetic. He just writes what he hears humming in his chest. "I don’t seem to feel that any of it is any good. All cheating."  

There surely has to be more to the story.  Like, maybe BIG BAGGAGE?  But Steinbeck isn't after a solution. He knows that the process of laying out the story is enough. And that 'trying to fix' adds another layer of resistance.  

If you are wondering why you would write a journal with no expectations, stay tuned.  Wisdom WILL arrive, but you have to give it time.  Right now, the story just wants to be witnessed.

  • PERSONALIZE-Dig a little deeper into hidden body reactions and backstories. 

Did Steinbeck follow up with a deeper reflection? Did he shake the word fraud out of his life?

Since we no more want to judge our Nobel Prize winner than we do our own selves, I offer three questions that help draw a deeper, more personalized story into the pages of your own journal. 

  1. When did I first start feeling like this?

  2. Where in my body do I feel the physicality of this story?

  3. In what way do I feel powerless to change the situation?

Vulnerability is not weakness. It is the opposite. Strength lies in being able to see, feel, and choose.

If you choose to burn your journals like Steinbeck, awesome.  Just remember to stay awake while you do it, and then...


I know the way. Every morning I must come into this little room and settle down and put in my time. For awhile nothing will happen but after a little, the matter will begin to crawl down the pen all over again. It always has.
— John Steinbeck