Study Hacks Blog

Steinbeck’s Productive Inactivity

February 21st, 2021 · 23 comments

Good news: if you have $17.9 million available, John Steinbeck’s 1.8 acre waterfront retreat is now for sale. It’s tucked onto a grassy peninsula in Upper Sag Harbor Cove, and features a pool, a long pier,  and two cozy guest cottages. Arguably most important is the hexagonal, 100-square-foot “writer’s house” overlooking the water.

Encountering this real estate listing sent me down a brief but entertaining Steinbeck-at-Sag-Harbor rabbit hole. He bought the house in 1955, I discovered, 16 years after The Grapes of Wrath. He subsequently split his time between his apartment on the Upper East Side and his Sag Harbor retreat, which he inhabited mainly in the summer, and eventually dubbed “my little fishing place.”

Steinbeck would write in the morning, often in his waterside hexagonal shed, but as revealed in letters, he’d sometimes instead escape out into the harbor in his fishing boat. “I can move out and anchor and have a little table and yellow pad and some pencils,” he wrote a friend. “Nothing else can intervene.”

With his writing done, Steinbeck would then relax:

“Afternoons were spent fishing or hobnobbing at Sal and Joes or Baron’s Cove resort, or with Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, and other writers at The Black Buoy, his beloved standard poodle in tow.”

Another source talked of how he would wander over to the docks in rubber boots to chat up the local fishermen.

Though it’s easy to be distracted by the more gaudy elements of Steinbeck’s summers, like his deep work on an anchored boat, it’s actually these final details — the languid afternoons — that stuck with me. Steinbeck represents the tail end of a period during which many intellectual types embraced a sort of heroic inactivity. They understood overload to be the foe of inspiration, and put their non-professional lives into an uneasy but necessary alliance with productive output.

It’s hard during our current moment of Zoom-schooled pandemic overwhelm to imagine anything more distant than the hard-drinking, free-flowing, Parisian idleness of the Lost Generation, but their underlying suspicion of busyness is worth highlighting. We shouldn’t strive to literally replicate Steinbeck’s summer lifestyle — though, admittedly, there have been more than a few times in recent months when day drinking at The Black Buoy seems just about right — as it’s ensconced in its own cultural moment. I don’t imagine, for example, Steinbeck ever worried about interrupting his conversations with Truman Capote to take his kid to urgent care.

But in these specific rhythms is a metaphor for something more generally true.

Steinbeck was “productive” in any practical sense of the word: he wrote 33 books and won a Nobel Prize for his efforts. But he wasn’t busy. In our current moment, by contrast, ambition is intertwined with overload — as if aspirations can only be alchemized in the heat generated by frenetic, hyper-connected digital motion.

An afternoon spent admiring Steinbeck’s little fishing place hints that we might not have this quite right.

23 thoughts on “Steinbeck’s Productive Inactivity

  1. Study Hacks says:

    (I just realized this is something like my fourth blog post in a row about resisting overload, finding silence, etc. This wasn’t part of some bigger plan. These topics must just really be on my mind recently…)

    1. Andres says:

      No complains on that.
      I always recommend “East of Eden”. I think there are writers and Writers. And Steinbeck is on the top of the great ones. There are too many people writing books on “how to be a writer” but to become a writer like Steinbeck, i think you have to be gifted. Instructions from some gurú are not enough.

      1. Nitin says:

        > There are too many people writing books on “how to be a writer”..

        Dear Lord, tell me about it. The once useful medium.com is now a cesspool of such “how to” articles. It’s easy to get sucked into these click-baity meta-articles and after reading a handful of these, all those tips and advice cancels out to zero. Now I avoid these “how-to” meta-articles like plague.

  2. John Burzynski says:

    Just took a Sunday afternoon nap, knowing I have a writing assignment due this week and will complete that this evening. I always am more productive after a nap.

  3. Mike Shukis says:

    What a great piece. It seems like Steinbeck had it right.

  4. Kathryn D Temple says:

    I love the historical context in this one…maybe deserving of something longer for the New Yorker?

  5. Cal, thanks for the Life of Focus course that you and Scott created. I’m really enjoying it and trying to reduce the amount of overload in my life. I’ve enjoyed the last 4 posts and wouldn’t mind a fifth one next week!

  6. Jesse says:

    Looks to be like he’s time blocking personal afternoon time!! Gotta respect that. I’d swap golf for fishing but same concept.

  7. Alicia says:

    “Indolence, of course, is an absolutely crucial part of the creative process: you do not find poets sitting in rows in cavernous word factories, staring at screens. They are rather to be found lolling on the sofa or strolling through the groves, nursing their melancholic temperaments and losing themselves in extended reveries.”
    —Tom Hodgkinson, British writer, editor of The Idler magazine

    1. Gran Torino says:

      I too, couldn’t help but think of Hodgkinson’s book, “How to be Idle”. Reminds the of the old steam engineering maxim, “the hissing pipe accomplishes no work”. On a similar vein, over the period of a full year I think people need to recognize the cyclicality/seasonality of work and rest over a year period. GT

    2. Am called Tom, Am British, Do write, Can confirm.

  8. Heather says:

    This post is delightfully serendipitous! I just clicked over after having read this: https://thomasjbevan.substack.com/p/a-short-treatise-on-rest.

    1. Thanks for sharing my essay, Heather.

      (I noticed some traffic from CalNewport.com and felt compelled to use my Sunday internet time to see where the link had come from).

      In the process you have reminded my of how Mr Newport is one of the few big writers who ‘gets it’ as far as tech and keeping the online world in its place is concerned.

      Deep Work and Digital Minimalism have been very influential on my own thinking (such as it is).

      Will sign up to Mr Newport’s newsletter and dig in to the archives here. See, this is how things should work. word of mouth discovery rather than heavy handed social media shilling.

      Be the change and all of that.

      Cheers.

  9. Peter Zegler says:

    No cell phone, computer and probably tv.
    Those were the good old days!
    Those were the good old people.

  10. JR says:

    I am in the middle of reading “Stressaholic” by Dr. Heidi Hanna where she explains why people live such hectic lives; they are addicted to it. You need to completely disconnect from information and stimulus via meditation or rest to recharge the neurochemicals in the brain to avoid burn out. The health effects of constant stress from a hectic life will literally kill you, i.e. it is like smoking cigarettes. Cal is definitely on to something about being full on and being intensively productive as well as being completely shutting down to recover like a professional athlete. Too bad employers don’t care about killing their best employees off with overwork because they can just hire more from overseas with a H1B visa.

    1. Mikey says:

      I could not agree more. It’s sad. I truly feel like I am too expensive on the balance sheet and my current role will be outsourced overseas along with all areas of IT in my company(it’s taking place department by department).
      Also the number of emails we receive daily is insane from all of the different reporting tools we utilize. You have to spend way too much time creating rules to make it somewhat manageable.

  11. Madeleine says:

    I read that Hirohiko Araki, a famous comic book artist, refuses to sign books and other tasks associated with publishing, but makes time to explore new places and research interesting ideas in-depth that end up in his work. It makes a refreshing change from the stereotype of the comic book artist chained to their desk for 20 hours a day, yet his work “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure” is considered one of the greatest series in recent years. His book “the theory of manga” is fascinating to read how he focuses on what makes a good story, and would help those interested in the deep life, even if you’re not a fan of comic books.

  12. Dave says:

    “Productive inactivity” is a great way to put it! I feel like everyone understands that our creativity comes out when we have that balance between work and play. But I would argue that people pigeonhole creativity. It’s not just artists, musicians, and writers who thrive on creativity. We all benefit from our creativity each and every day.

    The lulls in our lives tend to be the moments when we have the most opportunity for growth. Unfortunately, society seems to value constant hard work even though it can be counterproductive.

  13. Chris Wilson says:

    I’m glad your posts keep coming back to the idea of resisting overload. It’s been on my mind a lot as well. It’s made me realize the true double-edged sword of success. When we don’t have it, we are tempted by the allure of it. When we have it, we get swept away by thinking there’s only so much of it to go around. If we’re not clear on our values we quickly lose sight of our North Star. For the first time in my life as an entrepreneur I’m saying no to more things than I am saying yes. I want to protect those important values. Having that freedom in my schedule is what has given me that success.

  14. Geoff says:

    Hi Cal,

    What information do we have about Steinbeck’s rise to prominence?

    Did he always work this way, even when he wasn’t a ‘made’ writer? Or is this more the product of his success?

  15. Margo70 says:

    To be truly engaged in reading, thinking , creating and writing requires being “unbusy”.
    The pandemic gave me the opportunity I needed to untangle myself from all of the busy-ness I wrapped myself in.
    Before COVID I managed to fill every waking hour with an activity, event, employment, project or meeting. Now I fill my days with books I meant to read, long walks with my dog, Rosie, conversations with old friends and writing!
    I notice the change if the seasons and recently the birds are quite boisterous in the early morning. What a blessing to be unbusy!

  16. Jean Wolfe says:

    The switch between “doing” and “being” is so vital. I was reminded of this yesterday when it was sunny – so I took time to be outside. Knowing that I had worked the day before meant there was not a scrap of guilt – just enjoyment of each stage of the creative process.
    big fan of Steinbeck – lovely to see where he wrote, thank you!

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