An undisciplined writer attempts to find a steady routine by following the routines of well-known authors, no matter how ridiculous they may be.
Writing Like Jack Kerouac
I should preface this article about writing like Jack Kerouac by revealing a personal bias: I do not like Kerouac’s writing. I wouldn’t go as far as Truman Capote in saying, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.” But I will go as far as to say Kerouac could’ve used some better editors, which maybe he would’ve found if he hadn’t sent his work out on a massive scroll. Kerouac’s sexism, racism, and general pig-headishness make his writing difficult, no, impossible to enjoy at this point in my life. That’s not to say I didn’t have a massive writer crush on Kerouac at one point, but that point was in eighth grade, and I was on a lot of prescription medication. Sure, I dreamed of a life on the road in a busted up Kesey van taking Benzedrine, smoking tea, and writing by candlelight. But I was thirteen. I’m not thirteen anymore. Now the idea of wandering around without showering for weeks on end and posting a letter to my mom asking for fifty bucks every time I run out of cash just seems pathetic. So does all the Benzedrine. Yet, there’s something appealing about the idea that someone can write a mediocre book that could be deemed a Great American Novel in just three weeks. So why not try it out?
Well, there are many reasons not to try writing like Kerouac as it turns out. There’s the aforementioned speed, the alcoholism, and the fact that trying to decipher Jack’s writing advice is like trying to put together furniture from IKEA. Confusion, panic, a kitchen table that falls apart a week later, and oh god what do all of these pictures mean.
Take this beautiful gem from his list of thirty tips called “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose”: “Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind.” Oh, okay. Of course. Or, “Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven.” No? How about, “Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning”? I kept reading the phrases over and over, trying to make sense of it all. Maybe, I thought, I’m just too dense to understand this. Maybe this is like that time I went to a Poetry Foundation event and everyone was laughing or romantically sighing at certain lines and I was staring at my hands wondering why the open bar only opened after the reading.
I hoped it would all fall into place after I started his routine. In an interview with The Paris Review, he said: “I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night ... also kneeling and praying before starting.” So I lit a candle and prayed to the great secular goddesses of writing, the ghosts of Zora Neale Hurston and Virginia Woolf, and got to work. I substituted the Benzadrine for seven giant mugs of tea (the drinking kind) and a cup of coffee, and wrote. At about three in the morning, I started whispering, “Twenty-nine, twenty-nine, You’re a Genius all the time” to myself, and decided it was time to blow out the candle.
But how did Kerouac warm up for these long bursts of writing? Not in any normal way. “I try to do nine touchdowns a day, that is, I stand on my head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with my toe tips, while balanced. This is incidentally more than yoga, it's an athletic feat…” This was not pretty. I pulled a muscle in my back that gave me an unnerving twitch in my arm for a couple of days, but holy crap, did I feel athletic.
After a few days of touchdowns and caffeine fueled writing purges, I started to understand some of Kerouac’s rules. They became more and more clear with every sleep-deprived hour. Yes, yes, yes, yes, I thought at four one morning. This is it, I’m doing it. I’m writing, and it’s confessional, and it’s pure, and it’s damn good. I was filling up my “scribbled secret notebooks”. I was having “unspeakable visions of the individual.” I was on a roll. Until I started crying when I couldn’t get a bottle of orange juice open, and I threw it on the ground, and then I sat down on the ground next to it and moaned because I felt guilty for hurting the orange juice like that. I do not do well without sleep.
So, I prayed “to Jesus to preserve my sanity and my energy” which was a little awkward since we’re not really on speaking terms, and then I laid in my bed and experienced the shaky horrors of caffeine withdrawal, and fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning, I read over what I’d written on Kerouac’s routine. Let’s just say I don’t exactly have the next Great American Novel.
Cassie Sheets is a student at Columbia College Chicago where she wastes twenty grand a year trying to learn how to write. She previously wrote about Susan Sontag’s routine.
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