The Discipline of the Written Word By John Steinbeck: Reading and Meditation

October 25, 2020  • Todd Breyfogle

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Words are cheap. Perhaps it is simply an artificial inflation of both supply and demand. We are malnourished by a proliferation of the potato chips of the mind. The more cheap words we consume, the more we want—to want is both to desire and to lack. In insisting on the discipline of the written word, Steinbeck redirects our gaze away from argument, the hostile impulse to dominate or converse. Rather, he “seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing.” The discipline of the written word, Steinbeck says, originates in loneliness. Whereas argument addresses loneliness by pushing the other away, pursuing a relationship of meaning exposes loneliness to the warmth of the summer sun. The well-chosen words of a story do not push us apart but bring us together. “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.”

I spend much of my time with the spoken word. And unlike the cacophony of public and social media, the spoken words of seminar conversations are full of precision, feeling, and meaning; there is a discipline too of spontaneity if the conditions are right. Some spoken words and phrases are written in our memories, and often written down so that they may live on, building blocks in the bridges from one loneliness to another. Every story is a promise; every word spoken with care raises a curtain or offers a glimpse behind the curtain. What would it mean if we all took more care to celebrate the discipline of the written word? No story is ever done. 


Todd Breyfogle, Denver, Colorado

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