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Writing, The Beats and On The Road

1 April, 2009

When driving long distances, I like listening to talking books (TBs), i.e., cassette tapes or CDs of novels or short stories. The fiction comes to life when read by professional actors who create a memorable voice for every character in the story. I am a voracious reader, and a TB provides a pleasant holiday from the printed word.

Last week, on a very long drive from the southern end of Tasmania, up through western Victoria, and then home to eastern New South Wales, I listened to On the Road, written by Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac and read by one of my favourite American actors, Matt Dillon.

kerouac-jack1The novel, published in 1957, was not only a bestseller but also heralded the start of the Beat Generation. It was also famous because of the way Kerouac created the manuscript. He cut sheets of paper into long strips, then taped them together to make a single paper roll 120 feet long. The roll enabled him to type with minimal interruptions because he didn’t need to keep feeding sheets of paper into the machine. In three weeks he had the complete manuscript, written with no chapter or paragraph breaks. (The end of the roll is tattered because a dog started chewing on it one evening, showing the sometimes truth of the old excuse for missing a deadline, i.e., The dog ate it.)

Although Kerouac sometimes rewrote (mainly to satisfy his publishers), he favoured a stream of consciousness style that he called ‘spontaneous prose’. He viewed writing as a textual jazz where writers, like jazz musicians, could use language like musical instruments to elaborate on a theme and improvise.

He explained his methods and beliefs about writing in two short works: Belief & Technique for Modern Prose and Essentials of Spontaneous Prose. Below are some ideas from each of these works.

Blow as Deep as You Want to Blow

Belief and Technique for Modern Prose is a list of what Kerouac calls writing ‘essentials’.

Writers should not let inhibitions creep in when writing, but write for the joy of it:

  • Blow as deep as you want to blow
  • Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
  • Submissive to everything, open, listening
  • Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  • Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  • Write in recollection and amazement for yrself

Writers should stay true to their ideas, and not over-think them or get too worried about how others might react:

  • Something that you feel will find its own form
  • No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  • Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it

I liked this statement: great to set up on your desk:

  • You’re a Genius all the time

Fish as Far Down as You Want

In the Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, Kerouac uses his ‘jazz’ writing style to talk in more detail about his writing method.  Here are some excerpts.

  • Blow as deep as you want—write as deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first, then reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning—excitement by same laws operating in his own human mind.

Elsewhere, he wrote more simply about this idea of connecting with readers:

I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.

He stressed the importance of the  first thought being the right thought:

  • Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion—Do not afterthink except for poetic or P. S. reasons. Never afterthink to “improve” or defray impressions, as, the best writing is always the most painful personal wrung-out tossed from cradle warm protective mind-tap from yourself the song of yourself, blow!—now!—your way is your only way—

Writing quickly helps writers connect to their subconscious and bypass their internal censors:

  • If possible write “without consciousness” in semi-trance (as Yeats’ later “trance writing”) allowing subconscious to admit in own uninhibited interesting necessary and so “modern” language what conscious art would censor, and write excitedly, swiftly, with writing-or-typing-cramps, in accordance (as from center to periphery) with laws of orgasm, Reich’s “beclouding of consciousness.”

The mad ones who burn

In On the Road, Kerouac focuses on the lure of uninhibited people, like his friend, Neal Cassady (called Dean Moriarty in the novel). When writing, he undertook to create a style similar to Cassady’s frenetic, tumbled speech. The following quote from the novel describes people like Cassady but also could be used to describe a writer’s aim:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Marsha permalink
    9 April, 2009 12:52 pm

    Hi Kelly,
    Maybe Kerouac’s spontaneous composition was more a goal rather than the reality. He talked about his method a lot, and apparently Ginsberg changed from being dismissive about the method to adopting it–and using the method in part to create his famous poem, Howl.
    Had a look at your website–enjoyed your haiku and your flower photos. A poet up here in the Blue Mountains offers one-day haiku writing workshops. She takes the participants on a walk/hike, then they use that experience to produce their poetry. Marsha


  2. 9 April, 2009 10:07 am

    Thanks for the Kerouac piece! Always nice to bump into another fan. I like your overview of his writing theories and practices, too (although apparently the nonstop and spontaneous composition of On The Road is a slight exaggeration). Inspiring stuff, definitely. Thanks again!


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