The Steinbeck Museum in Salinas California changed my life.
That’s right, I said it. Let me explain. I had been teaching night and weekend classes as a part-timer at De Anza College for five years and could never get the elusive and coveted full-time tenured position I had dreamed of for so long. So in 2002, I finally decided to take a leap of faith and quit my day job teaching at a private ESL school in order to teach at De Anza during the day to join meetings, get to know the department, and tell the universe I was 100% committed to community college teaching. The decision risked half of my inordinately low income, but my heart was pushing me to jump.
It turned out to be the best career decision I have ever made.
The very first event I joined with my newly freed up weekday was a spring Steinbeck museum retreat with the Language Arts department. I didn’t know anyone as I trepidatiously got on the bus, feeling a bit like the new kid on the first day of school. But before long, I was analyzing East of Eden with my department scheduler, laughing with the bus crowd over a rowdy road-trip alphabet game, and connecting with full-timers in the campy Steinbeck museum displays. On an absolute high, I felt like I’d found my tribe of like-minded teachers, writers, and thinkers. By lunchtime at the Steinbeck House, I was offered an extra composition class to teach and by the end of the day, I was hugging everyone goodbye and invited to the next department adventure at the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. This initial connection to the college community eventually led to committee work, conferences, and a tenure track full-time position in 2004.
Thank you, Steinbeck!
Years later, that tenure position led to an even dreamier fall sabbatical project, a literary tour of Northern California. So of course, I had to return to the Steinbeck Museum, this time to take a leap of faith as a travel writer, a rather full circle moment for me. Could I do it? Was I truly a writer? My mind was unsure and insecure, but my heart said try.
On a crisp Salinas Sunday, I parked the car in the museum garage and walked past the colorful mural of Steinbeck and his cast of characters, a preface to the storyboard world I was about to enter.
With tickets in hand, I went straight into the bookshop to the left, a shrine dedicated to all of Steinbeck’s texts and hundreds of other books on Salinas, Monterey, and Northern California, a land so prominent in all of his works. There was even a statue of Steinbeck sitting on the couch in the corner, a hint that his spirit was in the air through all of his words.
A film to the right of the building showcased Salinas and the farming industry, a world that Steinbeck exposed as exploitative and unfair to workers in his 1930’s Grapes of Wrath. But the main exhibit to the left of the building was where I felt transported into Steinbeck’s imagination, a winding, whirling, 360 degree sensation overload of his family, environment, and world view. Each area was based on one of his books and a peek into the cultural and personal influences that helped create it.
What I realized walking through all the displays, pictures, and pages is that Steinbeck’s life epitomized a leap of faith. Every move he made, every word he wrote took risks that went against all logic and often ostracized him but led him to a most fantastic journey and to create literary masterpieces. This depression era guy’s guy was turning out to be my unexpected guru. Steinbeck’s spirit was shouting at me, “Write! Be daring! Share what’s in your heart and soul! Be damned what others think!”
One book after another exemplified this leap-of-faith lifestyle and whispered lessons to me as a writer on the precipice:
- The Cup of Gold: Steinbeck’s first novel was a flop. After a dejected time in New York City, he returned to house sit in Lake Tahoe where he wrote The Cup of Gold, about a Caribbean pirate. Lesson: Write about what you know not about some far off places and fairytale characters! And for God’s sake, every writer starts off a bad writer. Keep at it; keep flexing that muscle and the writing will improve.
- The Red Pony: Steinbeck wrote this novella while his mother was dying. It’s a sad tale about a boy whose beloved colt dies and about the fallibility of adults and inevitable death of all living creatures. Steinbeck’s mother was a tough, Victorian socialite climber whom he resented and rebelled against. But in the end, no matter what kind of relationship you have with your parents, you will miss them more than you ever thought possible. Lesson: Write what is most deeply personal even if uncomfortable; the depths of your heart have so many words to say.
- Tortilla Flat: This book is a comic story about a jobless gang of Mexican-Indian-Spanish-Caucasian descent living around Monterey CA and is Steinbeck’s first commercial success. He celebrates the lives of interesting men he knew working on the farms in Salinas. Steinbeck’s father unfortunately died five days before the book was published, and he never got to see his achievement as a writer. On his deathbed he told Steinbeck that he never got to do anything in life he ever wanted and encouraged Steinbeck to be a writer and follow his dreams. Lesson: Write about your world and the people in it. Do what you love now and don’t have regrets when there is no more time left.
- Of Mice and Men: During the depression, Steinbeck witnessed the lettuce and cotton strikes in Salinas. Of Mice and Men explores the challenges of day laborers and the humanity of the underrepresented and marginalized. This novella was well received by many but banned by others for obscenity and vulgar content. Yet, this book is about compassion for those we often alienate. In his journal, Steinbeck wrote:
“In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other” (1938).
Lesson: Write with compassion and understanding even if it is unpopular or criticized.
5.Grapes of Wrath: The Pulitzer Prize winning book about the plight of the Oklahoma dust bowl victims moving to California exposed the abuse and corruption of farmers. The Salinas land owners were not happy and burned Steinbeck’s books in front of the town library. But his dissidence was fueled by a moral conscience and his characters were a mouthpiece for social justice. Tom Joad says, “Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad.” Steinbeck wanted to tell the truth about his land and community even if it wasn’t liked. But this same town that rejected him during his life eventually erected a museum in his honor and called the area Steinbeck Country as tribute. Lesson: Write about truth even if it’s unpopular. In time, truth always wins.
6. Cannery Row: This post war book celebrates the prostitutes, derelicts, transients, and downtrodden, attempting to make the ugly beautiful. In his description of the now famous street, Steinbeck said, “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.” Yet Steinbeck made the reader love it and all its characters, especially Doc Ricketts, based on his real life best friend Ed Ricketts. Lesson: See the beauty in everything in the most unlikely of places. Observe and celebrate the people in your world for the best characters for your stories.
- East of Eden: Steinbeck’s son Tom has said that this book reflected his tumultuous household growing up with a vain and cutting mother, Steinbeck’s second wife, Gwyn. Other characters are supposedly based on his maternal grandfather’s family, ranchers in Salinas Valley. The book won the Nobel Prize for literature and is said to be Steinbeck’s finest work. He even says, “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years.” He further claimed: “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.” Lesson: Your craft as a writer is forever evolving, forever building on the stories you have written and the life you have lived.
There are more books of course, but these are his most famous and ones that spoke to me the loudest. I stumbled out of the labyrinth of displays into the stark lobby of the museum, dizzy with information overload yet buoyed with inspiration. It was as if Steinbeck was talking directly to me. “You are a writer, Julie. All you have to do is go write.”
I sat on the steps outside the museum looking down the tree-lined road of old town Salinas. Pulling out my notepad and pencil, I scribbled the sentence:
“The Steinbeck Museum in Salinas California changed my life.”