Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Physical Writing Process [Part 1: Jack Kerouac – Typewritten Scrolls]

Whenever I encounter tales of the way writers physically sit down to write one of their books, I’m always fascinated. I like to imagine what the setting might have been like and what sort of instrument they actually used to get the ideas and images out of the mind and onto the page. I know that it probably has little bearing on the finished product of their writing, but I still find it fun to imagine what it might have been like when these works of art were created. I picture Franz Kafka in a small room, waking up at night to write after having worked in the office all day and then taken a nap after he came home. As he sits at the wooden desk, what sort of pen does he grab? Does he have loose sheets of paper? A blue notebook? Or picture Sartre in a Paris café. Are people engaging him in so many philosophical dialogues that it’s a wonder he manages to write anything? Does he have a tattered notebook he’s been slowly filling up with a blue pen day by day?

[Jack Kerouac – Typewritten Scrolls]

One of the strongest examples of these types of tales is the story of how Jack Kerouac sat down to write On The Road. It’s a tale that’s become more of a myth or a legend over the years, but it’s definitely true that Jack did sit down in an apartment and write as nonstop as he could manage to compose his first draft in only a few weeks. Jack wanted the quick pace and intense speed of his cross-country journeys to be infused into his novel, and he thought one way to do this was to write it in the same intense fashion. Living at a time when typewriters were the preferred tool of writers, he naturally chose one for his work, but he devised a plan to avoid the drag of needing to stop and load a new page at frequent intervals. He taped rolls of paper into a massive scroll that would continually feed through the typewriter so that he could write at the same frantic pace as Neal Cassady speeding across America. Not only did he create a classic novel and a legend surrounding it, but that actual artifact: a massive physical scroll with the unfiltered draft of his most popular novel. I like to imagine what it would be like to hold that scroll and roll though it. I missed the scroll’s tour across America back in 2009, but maybe I’ll see it some other time.

Of course, the scroll’s travels these 60ish years later aren’t nearly as fascinating to me as their original journeys in Jack’s backpack. If you remember Allen Ginsberg’s dedication to Jack at the front of “Howl and Other Poems” (back when Jack was virtually unknown), Jack had written a whole bunch of books on scrolls that he couldn’t get published, and he tended to carry them all in his backpack as he hitchhiked all over the place. There’s a scene in Desolation Angels that is particularly troubling to me: Jack falls asleep on a bus, and when he wakes up, he realizes his backpack is gone – a backpack containing three of his scroll-novels. They could be lost forever! He’d never be able to rewrite them quite the same way, if at all, and there are no copies of them. He’s so upset that he starts to cry. Fortunately, it was just some sort of mix-up and the bag was shipped to his destination. This episode particularly resonates with me because I am always paranoid about losing my work. I tend to type my novels directly into GoogleDocs so that they are constantly backed up on Google’s servers because I like the idea of it being infinitely multiplied through the vast network of cyberspace. Living in the past when there would only be one copy that could be lost or destroyed at any moment sounds very scary to me. At the same time, it’s probably relatively rare that a physical document becomes lost or destroyed, and my paranoia of losing my work originates from a time in college when my computer’s hard drive was completely erased and I lost a few short stories forever. Viewed in this light, perhaps it’s living in this future that is scary.
Before we move on, let’s just remember that Jack wasn’t only into typing his writing. He starts off his list of writing essentials advocating the use of “scribbled secret notebooks.”

Upcoming Posts

I'm going to be posting multiple entries in this series over the next few weeks, so check back to read about more authors and their techniques (the authors are chosen based on my own semi-arbitrary reasons with no real chronological or thematic order).


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