So you can read my books

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


John Steinbeck
Sag Harbor
June 3, 1953

Dear Roland:

How odd it is:

Here I am much older, not nearly as wise as I would have hoped to be, still writing to you unchanged in the year 2014!

Your words over the years have helped me, though I fear mine to you has not helped any at all.

I am back from Washington, D.C.  and just now reading the newspaper and your latest letter to me.

Two first impressions:

First, a creeping, all pervading, nerve-gas of immorality which starts in the nursery and does not stop before it reaches the highest offices both corporate and governmental.

Two, a nervous restlessness, a hunger, a thirst, a yearning for something unknown— perhaps morality.

Then there’s the violence, cruelty and hypocrisy symptomatic of a people which has too much, and last, the surly ill temper which only shows up in humans when they are frightened.

Nothing seems to have changed in the nature of Man.

You mention this best-selling author, James Patterson, no longer writing his own books.

He does the outlines and hires different co-writers. He does credit the other writers,

and he probably does pay them handsomely,

but the whole thing is coiled up in my stomach like bad diner food.


How to express my feelings for it?  Let me try:

Early on I had a shattering experience in ghost-writing that has left its mark on me.

In the fourth grade in Salinas, Calif., my best friend was a boy named Pickles Moffet.

He was an almost perfect little boy, for he could throw rocks harder and more accurately than anyone, he was brave beyond belief

in stealing apples or raiding the cake section in the basement of the Episcopal church,

a gifted boy at marbles and tops and sublimely endowed at infighting.

Pickles had only one worm in him.

The writing of a simple English sentence could put him in a state of shock very like that condition which we now call battle fatigue.

Imagine to yourself, as the French say,

a burgeoning spring in Salinas, the streets glorious with puddles, grass and wildflowers and toadstools in full chorus,

and the dense adobe mud of just the proper consistency to be molded into balls and flung against white walls—

an activity at which Pickles Moffet excelled.

It was a time of ecstasy, like the birth of a sweet and sinless world. And just at this time our fourth-grade teacher hurled the lightning.

She assigned us our homework.

We were to write a quatrain in iambic pentameter with an a b - a b rhyme scheme.

Well, I thought Pickles was done for.

His eyes rolled up. His palms grew sweaty, and a series of jerky spasms went through his rigid body. I soothed him and gentled him,

but to show you the state Pickles was in—he threw a mud ball at Mrs. Warnock’s newly painted white residence. And he missed the whole house.

I think I saved Pickles’ life.

I promised to write two quatrains and give one to him. I’m sure there is a moral in this story somewhere, but where?

The verse I gave to Pickles got him an A while the one I turned in for myself brought a C.

You will understand that the injustice of this bugged me pretty badly. Neither poem was any great shucks, but at least they were equally bad.

And I guess my sense of injustice outweighed my caution, for I went to the teacher and complained:

 “How come Pickles got an A and I only got a C?”

Her answer has stayed with me all my life.

She said,

“What Pickles wrote was remarkable for Pickles. What you wrote was inferior for you.”

 You see what this says of your James Patterson and those who ghost-write for him?

If you do, please write and explain it to me.




  1. How I wish that teachers like that were allowed to flourish now. Teachers who could recognise effort and call out the best from their students. Even if, in this instance the effort she recognised was misplaced.

  2. Steinbeck was showing literary promise in the fourth grade--something his wise teacher recognized. He can also be proud of the fact that he never read a James Patterson story, ghost written or not.

    Ghostwriting must be a strange profession, and much like just a job, certainly not a passion or an art.

  3. I had a teacher in high school who had us keep a journal. At first I hated it because it was due every Fri. I felt forced, but she was not looking for specific content, only our imagination. I soon enjoyed turning in my journal with poems and just what was on my mind that day. The only draw back was I didn't apply what I learned to my other assignments. She was kind enough to help prod me in my other work as well.

  4. This was great. I feel the same about ghostwriting. Nor do I particularily care for writing from the same formula. Totally eye-crossing-boring.

    Hugs and chocolate!

  5. Oh the tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. In the instance of Steinbeck "ghost writing" for his friend, it did not end well grade-wise, but the recognition of talent was palpable.

  6. There was a guy in my college English class who I knew, that was taking the course in another guy's name and getting paid to do it. It bothered me, but this is one of those ethical issues I judged to be none of my business.

    He just told me to remember NOT to call him by the right name, since he sat next to me. Sheesh, now I felt drawn into the deceit.

    Have we gotten worse? I don't think so, but our lowered standards allow us to excuse anything or lie about it until caught. (who are the role models now?)

    Although what an author like Patterson is doing is what many famous artists did, add his touch and get the workers or learning artists to finish the work in the correct style. IMO, most lose authenticity.

    I don't know how John could make sense of our world today where principles seem left by the wayside.

  7. People who have too much, people who are afraid ~ I loved that paragraph. AS far as ghost writing goes, I guess money becomes more important than the fun of actually writing a book. Something tells me that John's friend Roland will never suffer from this disease.

  8. FIRST --

    Sorry for the late replies: I had to go to my surgeon today to hear the news of my biopsy and to set the date for the surgery on my ear. I can't seem to get the darn spot to stop bleeding.

    Elephant's Child:
    Now, teachers seem to have their hands tied by Federal paperwork. Sigh.

    It is nice to think his teacher recognized John's talent early. Sad that lazy writers use ghost writers instead of pounding out their own books. :-(

    I had a similar teacher back in grade school and a next door neighbor who typed out my stories. Now, if I only had her back in my life!!

    I am so happy you visited and liked my post! :-)

    And it saved poor Pickles' life! :-)

    John felt much the same way about his society. He was not optimistic about America's future or the world's.

    Hate that the ghost-student tried to rope you into his deceit!

    I love writing and putting my imagination into prose. But I doubt if my books will ever be popular enough to tempt me to have others write under my name!