Jack Kerouac On Writing

by James Scott Bell

Fasten your seatbelts.

We’ve written about Robert A. Heinlein’s rules and Elmore Leonard’s rules. Are you ready for Jack Kerouac’s?

Like most college liberal arts guys in the 70s, I went through a big Kerouac phase. It started, of course, with On the Road, the slightly fictionalized account of Kerouac’s roamings in post-World War II America.

There’s a myth that Kerouac completed his most famous novel in three weeks, on a rolling scroll of butcher paper, so he wouldn’t have to stop to remove pages from the typewriter. Indeed, much of On the Road was written in first draft that way, but Kerouac re-worked the manuscript several times before it was published.

Kerouac’s reputation (and, some might argue, the beginning of his ruin) was made when the New York Times called On the Road “a major achievement.” Not all critics were so moved. Time magazine characterized it as a “barbaric yawp of a book.” And later, Truman Capote would snarkily remark (did he ever remark un-snarkily?) that On the Road is “not writing. It’s typing.”

In any event, at one point Kerouac was asked to memorialize his writing advice. Let’s ride:

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Jack Kerouac. Photo by Tom Palumbo

    Blow as deep as you want to blow

  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

This is not exactly the stuff of structure. Indeed, while On the Road is linear in form, Kerouac’s subsequent work became more and more experimental—with the attendant decline in sales. (I will not pause here to once again emphasize the correlation between structure and sales, even though I just did). He died of alcoholism in 1969 at the age of 47, twelve years after publication of On the Road.

What Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers were after was a new kind of prose, a sort of be-bop rhapsody that most truly captured an experience. In that regard, these wild ideas are good for getting out of the way of yourself, to become a “crazy dumbsaint of the mind.” The writing then becomes a kind of “tranced fixation dreaming” and makes writing “for yr own joy” possible.

This is all fine as far as it goes. Kerouac thought that was far enough. But it proved otherwise. For at some point “yr own joy” needs to translate to the readers. On the Road did that. So, too, did his next-most successful novel, The Dharma Bums. After that, things started to get sketchy.

I retain a warm place in my heart for Kerouac. He meant a lot to me in my early formation as a writer. At its best his prose is vibrant, emotional, ecstatic, as in this famous passage from On the Road:

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 who 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!”

I am literally going to be on the road today, driving back to L.A. from Las Vegas (no, I didn’t put it all on red. Came for a meeting and research for my next novel). I’ll check in, but please talk amongst yourselves. Have you read Kerouac? What do you find of value in his advice?

16 thoughts on “Jack Kerouac On Writing

  1. I, too, read JK in college ~ technical, not liberal arts~ and followed the parallels between Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady (and the Grateful Dead song “Cassidy”).
    Maybe I was ” rebelling ” against the engineer types (or in denial of my calculus grades), but he was one of several “extracurricular” authors I read – Brautigan, Wolfe (Thomas, not Virginia), Hesse, Ginsburg ~ the whole nine yards~ and info think I learned how maybe NOT to write while at the same time how to see and think outside the proverbial boz (there’s a box?), and, to riff Frost, “…that has made all the difference…”
    As to JK’s “rules”~ I think he’d feel right at home with ” gen-text-ers”

  2. I tried Kerouac, did better with Mishima.

    Could never grasp how a man with so much of whatever he had could simply smoke it away with vegetated dullness. He made me feel as if he were going through life with vision obscured, eyes half-closed, and, though he invited me along, was never comfortable with me being there–as if he might like me or something.

    Never felt he moved past smirks and the sounds of silence that potheads of the time thought were the ultimate goals in life.

    He wasn’t a villain exactly–he left too shallow an imprint for us to know what he was. He was successful at flaunting how unsuccessful he really was.

    Mishima–now there was a real dude, a novelist who wanted to leave the world with the big exit of seppuku in front of a Japanese fighting force he was trying to excite and encourage to treason and rebellion. His goof? Plunging in the dagger on top of a building, then having a nincompoop accomplice incapable of cleanly cutting off his head–leaving the world in a mixture of the the horrid and embarrassing pain of the clearest illustration of whacking ever in the literary world, and the keystone comedy of choosing the incompetent who caused it.

    Of course Mishima was tortured. Kerouac tortured himself.

    In my mind, the two complemented one another.

  3. I’m reminded of Theseus’ speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

    Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
    Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
    More than cool reason ever comprehends.
    The lunatic, the lover and the poet
    Are of imagination all compact:
    One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
    That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
    Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
    The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
    Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
    And as imagination bodies forth
    The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
    Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
    A local habitation and a name.

    I think Kerouac could relate.

  4. I read JK in college. I wanted to be cool, but honestly I never understood what the #$@# he was talking about. I just didn’t get it. Reading through the 30 points was deja vu all over again. I almost understood what he was saying, but as Capote said, its just typing to me.
    I think his writing could have been something very special, if he’d lived long enough to let his complex ideas gel in an old man’s head. What he did write draws too much attention to itself.

  5. This is pretty much my only “contact” with Kerouac. I lived in Orlando for a number of years (far too many), and one of my earliest writing partners was a Writer In Residence for a year, so I saw the house and the memorabilia, but confess I never read On the Road. Or if I did, I have absolutely no recollection of it.

  6. For me, the final essential lesson of the beats is about freedom. I don’t see Kerouac and Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg in my writing, in my lines and images, but I do feel them in the freedom that they gave me to write about my parents and their concentration camp experiences. I grew up thinking that my parents and all of their experiences were something to be avoided, stepped away from, that it was just “that camp shit” and “that alien shit” that I as an American shouldn’t concern myself with. Kerouac and Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg with their ethnic roots and outsider perspective gave me the freedom I needed to think and write about a foreign past that a lot of people don’t want to think and write about.

    That’s what Kerouac and the beats did for me.

      • Thank you for that,

        He really did help make me the writer I am.

        A final lesson he taught me was that different people react differently to a writer.

        I was a university prof teaching American lit and I never ever taught Kerouac. At least not until near the end of my career. Then I did, and the response from my grad students was an education. I loved Kerouac. To me he was one of the literary Gods.

        To my students?

        Not so much. They were coming from a different world and in their world Kerouac was just a verbose, racist, sexist ham.

        They taught me to see him in a different, more complete light, I believe.

  7. I’ve had an on again off again love affair with Karouac’ writing. Right now at the rope old age of 73, I accept that many people think his writing especially On The Road is great literature And yes Jack wanted to be seen as a great American writer. But I think what he did, besides himself, was to usher, along with other 50’s writers and musicians, was a new way of looking at Ameriva and maybe seeing it as it really was. For that we should be greatful.

  8. I never read Kerouac’s work. When I was in college in the 80s, John Gardener was the the author of the book of craft that was taught. He made some good points but he was also disdainful of commercial fiction and thought the only “real” writers were dedicated to literary works. Did anyone else study him? What are your thoughts about him?

  9. I was about to comment that I’d read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It was by Tom Wolfe and about 10 years later.

    But I do have a sense of the beat writers and their version of redefining the literary world. And goodness the world was different from the one they were born into. Even tough transitions have their own strange beauty.

    Also, I expect that list sent a lot of writers on confused paths. Many of them taught in MFA programs.

  10. What is immediately the most beautiful about authors like Keourac is that here the romantic dream comes true, from the writer who is “out there” on the road and writes about it. One can say a lot about “On the Road”, but it takes the reader by the hand and leads him to the end through fascinating observations that do not fall into the cliché of the artistic Sing Sang but produce a clear, hard and poetic prose.

    Certainly, the book is a child of its time and the myth belongs to it, of course. But isn’t it great when someone just steps on the gas emotionally and poetically and reminds us that a text can do much more than tell a structured story?

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