Jack Kerouac, c. 1956 (Tom Palumbo)
Jack Kerouac was a writer’s writer. Not that he was always a master of scintillating prose or effortlessly produced one masterpiece after the other. His writing was too wild-eyed and full-speed-ahead for that. But whatever one’s opinion of his work, particularly On the Road and The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s double-barreled approach to the life of writing as an ecstatic gleap (yes, that’s a word) of wonder and pain and fireworks makes him in some ways the best damn American writer who ever lived.
Kerouac wasn’t one for debating the mechanics of the craft. But he did have some principles to live and write by. In fact, he slapped down a list of “Belief[s] and Technique[s] for Modern Prose.” 30 of ‘em. Here’s a few:
- Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
- Submissive to everything, open, listening
- Try never get drunk outside yr own house
- Be in love with yr life
- Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
- Accept loss forever
- You’re a Genius all the time
The transferability and efficacy of some of these are debatable. Clearly. But it’s probably worth taking them out for a spin and seeing what happens.
(photo by Steve Lyon)
When I was teaching — I taught for a while — my students would write as if they were raised by wolves. Or raised on the streets. They were middle-class kids and they were ashamed of their background. They felt like unless they grew up in poverty, they had nothing to write about. Which was interesting because I had always thought that poor people were the ones who were ashamed. But it’s not. It’s middle-class people who are ashamed of their lives. And it doesn’t really matter what your life was like, you can write about anything. It’s just the writing of it that is the challenge. I felt sorry for these kids, that they thought that their whole past was absolutely worthless because it was less than remarkable.
— David Sedaris, January Magazine, June 2000
Remember, there’s a lot of stories out there, yours included. Ultimately, it’s the telling that matters.
Any serious reader is never satisfied with how much they’re reading. They’re more likely to be anxious and perturbed by the ever-growing stack(s) of books that threaten to blot out the season’s weak winter sun.
Still, few readers have a to-read list to rival that of Times critic Dwight Garner, who says he gets about 25 books a day in the mail and that it takes him on average 8 hours to read one. Do the math.
Here’s a few of the better lines from a recent interview with Garner:
One doesn’t review one’s friends. Having said that, “friend” is an elastic term.
A lot of books are like first dates. You know in 25 seconds if it’s going to work out.
[On whether he reads every page of every book he reviews] I do. Out of moral obligation. Also out of fear. You don’t want to miss something crucial. You want to be definitive in your pronouncements. You want to be able to write things like, “Not once in 350 pages does Mr. Borges huff paint.” You don’t want to worry about a huffing scene on Page 211 that you skipped over.
It seems like the youth of America are about the only ones still reading these days. According to NPR:
Young Americans are more likely to have read a book in the past year than their older counterparts, a new study finds. According to data from the Pew Research Center, “88% of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those age 30 and older.” The findings go against the oft-repeated narrative that the Internet is degrading the reading habits of the young (those millennials supposedly Snapchatting themselves into a cultureless stupor). In another surprise, people under 30 were also more likely to say that there is “a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the internet.”
Bookstores are filled with new and ever-burgeoning series of novels targeted at the young adult market, not to mention slightly simplified versions of nonfiction bestsellers like Unbroken. In other words, this is a big and potentially growing market.
Also, young readers are generally being given more latitude in terms of the subject matter deemed appropriate. Jack Zipes’ new translation of Grimms’ fairy tales from Princeton University Press makes a point of including some “gruesome” additions previously unknown to modern readers:
How the Children Played at Slaughtering, for example, stays true to its title, seeing a group of children playing at being a butcher and a pig. It ends direly: a boy cuts the throat of his little brother, only to be stabbed in the heart by his enraged mother. Unfortunately, the stabbing meant she left her other child alone in the bath, where he drowned. Unable to be cheered up by the neighbours, she hangs herself; when her husband gets home, “he became so despondent that he died soon thereafter”. The Children of Famine is just as disturbing: a mother threatens to kill her daughters because there is nothing else to eat.
Whether or not any children will be read these as bedtime stories remains to be seen. But in any case, if you’re looking to sell books, write with the youth market in mind.
(Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month)
Every year, a small but intensely committed band of writers try to ensure that November is known for something besides candy-hangover and Christmas dread. November is also known as National Writing Month (NaNoWriMo to the dedicated), to at least a few.
The basic idea is to write a 50,000-word manuscript in just 30 days. Last year, over 310,000 people apparently took part. It’s more than just an idea, the NaNoWriMo group offers writing spaces and the occasional pep talk, as well as ways to get together with your fellow scriveners.
Maybe you’ve got a novel in you, maybe you don’t. Either way, churning out 50,000 words in a month (that’s about 7 double-spaced pages a day) will at least give you an idea of whether you have what it takes. Better get started; after all, it’s already the 2nd.
Now that the dream of the Amtrak writers’ residency is over and done with, it’s time for the rest of us to get back to the business at hand: crafting words and pages from nowhere out of nothing. Place matters; thusly the desire for inspiring places to put fingers to keyboards.
But there’s always that unfortunate reminder that, dream though we may of the perfect place and time to do one’s writing (cabin, nice view of the lake, maybe a dog who only wants to be walked at convenient 3- to 4-hour intervals), at some point one does have to get past inspiration and put one’s tender nose on that unforgiving grindstone.
Per Doreen Carvajal, who wrote about using the TGV train ride south from Paris as a way to unblock a long-dormant book proposal:
I settled into a cushioned seat by the window, thinking of my own family’s love affair with trains and the basic writing lesson they knew better than me. There is no better way to craft a book than to toil like a railroad worker, every day, all day.
Most people who read as children have fond memories of the bookmobile. One had normally thoroughly ransacked the age-appropriate shelves at the local public library and the thin offerings in the school itself. So having an RV pull up with an appropriately stern librarian with some new offerings (or at least the old offerings newly presented) was manna from heaven.
In Portland, Oregon, a phenomenal little nonprofit group is taking that idea in an entirely different direction. Street Books is a small band of dedicated booklovers who spend a few hours each week bicycling books around to the city’s homeless population. From the Times writeup:
The Street Books project is nothing if not messy. The librarians — the three salaried employees, including Ms. Moulton, are paid $60 a week for a three-hour shift — fill their carts based on their tastes and their patrons’ tastes.
Diana Rempe, 48, a community psychologist who recently completed her Ph.D. and pedals the bike one afternoon a week, stops at a day-labor assembly site on the city’s east side, where many Mexican and Latin American men gather, waiting to be hired. So she loads up on books in Spanish. (Her proudest book coup, she said, was getting a hard-to-find book on chess moves in Spanish for two Cuban players.)
You can donate money here, or email them and ask about donating books that people have been asking about.