Never write hot: John Steinbeck on letting your experiences ferment.

Written by Cole Schafer


I’ve been tearing through Steinbeck, lately.

It’s an obsession that began with a letter he wrote to his son on the subject of love and the anxieties that come with it.

And, one that only intensified as I was made aware of the strange complicated dynamic between he and another writer I adore, Ernest Hemingway.

(It turns out, the pair were fierce competitors with one another.)

After spending twenty-six years of my life not reading a single word of Steinbeck, I suddenly found myself rifling through masterpieces like The Moon is Down and The Pearl in single afternoons.

I have many more of his novellas to thumb through, but it doesn’t feel unreasonable to say he’s the best short story writer I’ve ever read.

And, fortunately, for the rest of us pursuing this writing life, he left us with some splendid writing advice before he made his French exit.

Never write hot.

In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck gives us a glimpse inside his writing process…

“I also knew from thirty years of my profession that I cannot write hot on an event. It has to ferment. I must do what a friend calls “mule it over” for a time before it goes down.”

Steinbeck isn’t alone in this sentiment…

Ogilvy recommends unhooking.

A much different kind of writer, by the name of David Ogilvy, ironically felt the same way when writing advertising.

Though, he worded it differently…

“Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret.”

In a world where consumers and readers seem to reward brands and writers who write more rather than write better, spilling it out and onto the page before it’s ready is tempting but not necessarily a sure-fire path to good lasting work.

When warring with this temptation, it’s worthwhile to revisit what Jack Kerouac had to say on this basis of trends, fads and popular opinions…

Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.”

Read a lot. Experience as much as you read. Do a lot of nothing at all. Let it all ferment. Then and only then, write it down.

And, when in doubt, drown some claret.

But, I digress.

By Cole Schafer.