I have been rescued from my writing funk by Jack Kerouac and the Beats who wrote howled and sang lashing out against the established order, who reached for the sky thought outside the box, were arrested and wrote from jail, who, in their defiance, still had hope and published books and poems, and didn’t stop writing.
Kerouac experimented with writing spontaneous prose (that’s my attempt above, at a spontaneous opening paragraph) and poetry that often had no punctuation and read like streams of thoughts full of images, disorderly and out of sequence but captivating at the same time. In 1958 he penned his Belief & Technique for Modern Prose (https://www.writing.upenn.edu/~alfilreis/88/kerouac-technique.html) a list of thirty essential “rules” for writing. They have been ringing in my ears like spontaneous bursts of inspiration, like lines from a song. I like to think Kerouac would approve. Here are my favourites from his list of thirty:
#1 Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewriter pages, for yr own joy
#2 Submissive to everything, open, listening
#5 Something that you feel will find its own form
#8 Write what you want bottomless from bottom of mind
#13 Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
#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
#21 Struggle to catch the flow that already exists intact in mind
#24 No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
#29 Youre a Genius all the time
It’s not just the content I love, it’s the form: the sound that the “s’s” make in the first line, “scribbled secret”; the repitition in “bottomless from bottom of mind”; the image of the “jewel center of interest.” This is poetry and it was published as such in Heaven & Other Poems.
But number 18 is the line I keep coming back to:
“Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea.”
Pithy is another word for “essential.” Pay attention to your inner voice that sees the truth, that unguarded raw part of you. When you do, the necessary words will be there.
One of the issues Kerouac wrestled with was language getting in the way of what we want to write. I am often at my creative best when I am walking, and compose bits and pieces of writing sometimes whole paragraphs, in my mind. Ideas seem to flow without effort. But as soon as I sit and pick up my pen, the words dry up, like puddles in the sunshine. I can’t seem to recapture the pithiness of what was so exciting about the sentences that came to me while I was walking.
Kerouac, I imagine, would say that I have been schooled in the pedestrian use of language to communicate on a surface level. We all do this. We edit what we say rather than saying what we really think. We make make small talk. We only half listen to what someone tells us; we are too busy to make the effort to communicate on a deeper level. And our brains are wired for survival so that when we sit and declare it’s time to write, our logical mind can take over. That part of our brain that is good at making lists, organizing our schedule, following directions, making sure we do things the “right” way. Many of us have a loud, active and extremely competent logical voice in our heads. One that can also be hyper-critical. That voice means well, but it can run interference when we want to write creatively.
At Sister Writes, we practice free writing- timed sessions, where we don’t take our pen from the paper and we write whatever comes into our mind, with a prompt to help us focus. Free writing works; I have written stories and poems based on ten minute free writes. But lately, I have struggled with fitting free writing into my day even though I know that writing gets easier the more you do it. Enter Jack Kerouac and his fellow Beat writers- Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, Amiri Baraka.
Thanks to a link sent to me by Lauren Kirshner, I signed up for a free online poetry course called ModPo- Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. Week six, is called, “breaking conformity: the beats.” This chapter has broken me open. I am a new recruit to the Beats fan club. This group of writers, raised their voices in protest against a conservative, post-war America where opportunity and success was so narrowly defined that many felt left out.
I admire their idealism which seems touchingly naive but still so needed in 2016. Kerouac aspired to overcome the obstacles of everyday thought and the dull language it spawned with his “spontaneous prose.” But spontaneity is so difficult. How to liberate our minds and our hands, to write with abandon? Kerouac spent his life trying and he achieved notoriety for his efforts, but the drugs and booze he initially found helpful to remove inhibitions and to dull his pain, eventually killed him at forty seven.
So where does that leave us? As writers we want to tell our stories in ways that will not only touch our hearts but the hearts of others. One thing we can do is pay attention to the sound of our writing, a timely topic with the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to musician Bob Dylan! Many of the Beats were “performance artists” long before that term became fashionable. Kerouac referenced jazz constantly, talking about “free deviation …of mind into limitless blow..” and telling us to “Blow as deep as you want…”, blow being a jazz term for playing any instrument. When I think of jazz, I think improvisation, free wheeling sound that you can’t help but swing your body to.
If you listen to a recording of Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, Howl, the tight phrasing Ginsberg used, causes your mind to focus on the sound of what is being said so that you relax into the poem and don’t pay so much attention to the meaning of the words.
This is writing at a visceral level that gets inside your skin.
One of the recent writing exercises in the Workshop at Sister Writes, involves composing a poem using Anaphora-the deliberate repeating of a phrase at the beginning of each line or stanza. We are writing an “I Remember” poem:
I remember sturdy apple blossom dishes……..
I remember my Dad…..
I remember glass bottles….
Free writing using this I remember device, allows your mind to relax into memories. There is a hypnotic effect to repeating those two words and this effect brings images to the surface. Try this. Write down what you see in your mind each time you say ” I remember” and don’t worry about grammar or orderliness. You can go back later and tidy up if necessary.
Reading the Beats has given me such a lift. It has something to do with feeling a connection with a larger writing community; with knowing that fifty eight years ago, Jack Kerouac wrote his list of thirty essential beliefs about modern prose and in 2016 they are still being read and providing inspiration. And even though Kerouac and his fellow writers were mocked and put down they kept writing and performing.
The work matters. Your writing matters.
Til next time, keep writing.