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Tuesday, 10.12.04: Kerouac at work

Wouldn't we all love to be geniuses? Maybe I mean savants -- you know, people who are natural winners, whose talents bubble relentlessly to the surface no matter what they do.

There was an odd something about how I absorbed the culture around me when I was young. Some kids were artists, some kids were athletes. Some kids were smart, some kids were dumb. That's simply how the world was structured. Somehow, you just were who you were. And, even though parents paid attention to whether you did your homework or not, you weren't really supposed to like school. If you were bright and got good grades, that was swell, but if you actually studied too much -- well, no one wanted to be labeled a book worm.

My environment was 1950s, Midwestern working class, but I can't say if what I described was really true or if it was only what I saw through my own self-conscious and shy filters. (My mother called this being "reserved" -- a nice spin.)

By the time I got to high school, I realized that hours studying did indeed have a relationship to achievement. But it took me a very long time to realize how hard artists work. And even now I still have this vague sense of -- what? guilt? self-consciousness? nerdiness? about admitting it when I work really hard on something.

In Sunday's New York Times Book Review section, Walter Kirn looks at Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954. Kerouac published On the Road in 1957 and made a reputation for himself as the original road trip party hound. He became the lifestyle god for a generation of hippies -- a "half-baked dopehead primitivist who prized sensation over sense. The guru of spontaneity.

Write on, cant change or go back, involuntary, unrevised, spontaneous, subconscious, pure... Something that you feel will find its own form... Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition... Work from the pithy middle eye out, from the jewel center of interest, swimming in language sea... Composing wild, undisciplined pure, coming in from under, crazier the better... You're a genius all the time... [Kerouac's Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, Wired, March 1998]

But apparently this was a well-cultivated public image of himself. Brand Kerouac. According to Kirn's reading of his journals:

Work was his fortress... The journals document Kerouac's dogged regimen of marathon all-night writing sessions with regular breaks for all-night reading sessions and marathon all-night bull sessions with Ginsberg. The man was his own intellectual personal trainer, standing over himself with a shrill whistle as he ground out the paragraphs, pored through Dostoyevsky, analyzed "Hamlet" line by line and typed up his novel's 1,100 page manuscript. To quantify his progress in this last task, Kerouac devised a numerical "batting average" that he recalculated as he went. "Did 17 pages, batting .329...

For every entry concerning a wild night out with his colorful cohort of insomniac poets, opiated philosophers and autodidact ex-cons, there's a meditation on Mark Twain or a list of favorite Renaissance poets.

I'm always fascinated to look behind the curtain and see the wheels and levers of a wizard at work.

Since I've written on this topic before, now I can say it's one of a series of articles looking over the shoulders of people who make their art look easy.

 

CONFESSION

I never read On the Road or anything else by Kerouac, as of this writing. [Note on 1/31/10: I finally caught up.]

 

 

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