A few months ago I visited Cannery Row with my girlfriend on a marvelous sunny day. We ate fine food, listened to live jazz on the plaza while enjoying a view of Monterey Bay, window shopped expensive underwater camera equipment, and walked Ocean View Avenue with droves of other tourists; yet, I felt a lingering sadness. The Depression-era Row, “the poem and the stink and the grating noise,” Steinbeck wrote about, came to mind as we walked by the older architecture and imagery. Perhaps the novel and my general knowledge of Ocean View Avenue influenced my immediate feelings, but the melancholy seemed to reach beyond that, beyond the restaurants, gift shops, cafes, hotels, and salons to a history of haves and have nots.
I’ve worked my share of miserable jobs and have had to subsist on rice for several days when teaching English in Japan, but I always felt on the verge of soaring above it all. True poverty grants few opportunities and little hope. Steinbeck’s beautifully tragic depictions of the working poor in Cannery Row are bleak, where the only blessing for the poor is to have other impoverished people around to survive. I imagined the dark frustrations of the people handling massive amounts of fish and metal for hours because canning was the best they could do to make a living, saw in my mind the grief of disheveled men and women living under trees or whatever makeshift shelter they could construct.
Having read the book a while ago, I decided to reread it. I found the following entry I most likely glossed over because I wasn’t writing a novel then:
When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.
With that in mind, and with the end in sight, the new approach to writing the novel is to set aside a time—one hour, thirty minutes, whatever, and show up to write. If the symbolic flat worms crawl into my bottle of sea water, great. If not, I practiced my craft and didn’t injure any marine animals on my knife blade.
Okay, the analogy fell apart, but you get the idea.