A Writer’s Habit (in their own voice): Jack Kerouac

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Jack Kerouac – The Binge Artist

March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969

Most known for: On The Road, Dharma Bums, Big Sur

The great patron saint of the all-nighter, the fervor of words from the slamming of typewriter keys onto the forever scroll of paper he taped together so language could flow like sound – Jack Kerouac could outwrite and outdrink anyone he came across or at least that is what he told himself in his mind of minds which believed in his method of spontaneous prose only a little less than in the holy of holies. Oftentimes, and most often meaning when he was writing, he would stay up for days of jazz writing, be-bopping through pages without chapters or paragraphs and nary a period to separate the ideas. He would lay his tired head down in the mornings for a few hours of slumber to remove the red and tired from rubbing them eyes while typing truth.  Legend carries that his most famous work, On The Road, the story of stories telling of his journey across the basins and over the serrate rocks of America and his mindscape, to return to Lowell or New York to type his madness, his visions, his holy wisdom, took him only twenty days on a 120 foot scroll of tracing paper. He would down mugs of coffee and a constant trail of cigarettes sending his wild realizations of life like smoke signals.

At any given chance, Kerouac would go deep into the truth of spontaneous prose, following a mantra central of  “first thought, best thought,” and convert other writers, poets, and musicians to his manic method. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso opened to his prophecy like the bright late sun of a San Francisco sunset, and  adopted his particular penchant for discovering what their souls had to say. But you don’t have to take my word for it. In the essay, “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” he writes of the mad explosions of his mind, like a comet racing across the sky – flash! This way he could get down into the incommunicable, the necessary soulful, the meaning he knew he could (had to) communicate. Writing, he says, should be,

Not “selectivity” of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in sea of English with no discipline other than rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and expostulated statement, like a fist coming down on a table with each complete utterance, bang! (the space dash) – 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.

The perfection of expression muddled the purity of instant thought to Kerouac. While his long-frenzied nights of typing through the cloud of smoke and never stopping has become the stuff of legends, he would prepare for these binges with writing in his forever friend, the journal he kept with him always, and outline what he wanted to say in the books, like a structure he knew he could build once he had the picture full in his mind.  He would remind himself that the right form was inside him already, like an uncovered treasure waiting for the glint of exposure, and that any kind of story would find its form through him! and there were all types of stories – stories of benny craze in New York days – tales of Mexico where his madness burnt like the sun – yarns of finding emptiness in lonely ole California mountainside – and all where Kerouac could “struggle to sketch the flow which already exists intact in the mind.”

Here a self-abnegating creator of the Beat movement gives us the key to his flash and his profligacy: Kerouac could see his story intact in his mind and then let it flow flow flow – like the blow of a jazz player sweating through the notes on his knees beneath the truth sounding loud and echoing even in our time. Kerouac kept everything in him until it was ready to pour forth like holy water. Then without interruption he would erupt with his story, spilling it upon the page as fast and true as he knew he could.

What he showed us, besides ephemeral frenzy, was a capacity for focus. Kerouac lived out-loud with his eyes open (research) and then stew upon all his experience (summary and synopsis) and then let it flow through him to the page in an extended swoop (writing).  While his practice of writing was not daily, he worked upon his project continuously – structuring the story in his mind and journals. Then in days of dedication which would stir jealousy even from the most devout, he would produce and send his shock of his own human mind to the great awe of the world.

To harness that habit of clarity and focus would fill the libraries to overflow with tomes of our own brilliance. Next time your fingerpads tire from typing or your eyes get bleary from late nights of finding and casting your voice to the page remember Jack, usually working alone, but pushing through, through, to recreate his experience for our imagination. And then type on – your legacy awaits.

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