Monday, March 9, 2009

Why Kerouac? UPDATED August 24, 2015

Here is a link to a guest post I wrote for the blog, Words Are My Power: Why Kerouac?

UPDATE: August 24, 2015
The above link no longer works and I have no idea how to contact the owner of the blog. Fortunately, I kept a copy of the text, which I have pasted below. I have not updated it from 2009 and would likely have a few more things to say these six years later. But, I'll save that for another time.

Why Kerouac?

I’ve been invited to write about my affinity for Jack Kerouac and the beats. I’m going to focus on Kerouac, since any affinity I have for the beats in general is a direct offshoot of my affinity for Jack. This post started out in my mind with a scholarly bent, and then it veered into a mostly personal perspective.

I received an excellent high school and undergraduate education, yet where literature is concerned, I don’t remember encountering Kerouac. Maybe I was exposed to beat literature and it just didn’t “take.” The first exposure I remember came in 2002, courtesy of my great friend, Keith – a huge Kerouac fan – who encouraged me to read On The Road. I was living alone at the time, reading voraciously, and frequenting the local tavern much more than necessary or healthful (living like Jack?).

A number of things in On The Road spoke to me. I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s description: “Someone handed me Mexico City Blues in St. Paul [Minnesota] in 1959 and it blew my mind. It was the first poetry that spoke my own language.” I guess Jack’s was the first prose that really spoke my own language: the spontaneity, the passion, the freedom, and of course the style in which those were conveyed grabbed my attention and held it, and holds it to this day (I’m currently reading The Subterraneans). Jack’s was the first prose I’d ever read where it seemed as if comprehension was only part of the ride. I could read entire passages, enjoy them, and not really know exactly what Kerouac was talking about.

In a comment on my February 22, 2009 post on my blog, The Daily Beat, “the right guy” said about Kerouac, “reading his work is more like experiencing something than reading and digestion.” Yes! That is what I love about reading Kerouac – it’s an experience!

The second Kerouac novel I read was The Dharma Bums. I must admit that I preferred it – and still do – over On The Road. I know that statement probably amounts to beat anathema, but it’s the truth. My truth, anyway. I think Bums originally appealed to me because I was coming off a heavy Buddhist kick at the time. Bums had many of the same features as Road, but with a more explicit spiritual theme.

Next I read Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac by Gerald Nicosia. I became fascinated with Kerouac the human being: driven, questioning, passionate, flawed. I related to his trials, envied his exploits, and empathized with his losses. There are just some eerie parallels between our lives. I grew up in the Northeast. I had lost a brother, too, not young like Gerard, but young. My brother was gay, so I could relate to Jack’s homosexual exploits. I’d been married three times (so had Jack). My mom was born two years after Jack, but my dad was born in 1904, so I had a mixed cultural experience where generational issues are concerned. In Jack’s essay, “The Origins of the Beat Generation,” he lists a number of things that the beat generation “goes back to.” Following are some items directly from Jack’s list:

W.C. Fields
The Three Stooges
The Marx Brothers
Krazy Kat
Laurel and Hardy
Count Dracula
King Kong
Basil Rathbone [as Sherlock Holmes]

If I independently created a list of cultural influences from my youth, I would have included those same influences.

Jack’s oft-quoted “the only people for me are the mad ones . . .” has been a theme in my life, yet I never thought about it until I read that passage in On The Road. I don’t know where that character trait had its seed, but I suspect it may have come from growing up living in a hotel where my dad was the manager. I was surrounded by characters at all times, from the guests to the bellhops to the front desk managers to the chefs in the kitchen. I remember one time my friends and I were teasing the prep cooks – as we often did – down in the vast kitchen prep room in the basement. One time, several of the cooks grabbed my friend Joe and threw him on the prep table, started the meat grinder, and pretended they were going to run his arm through it!

Like I said, I grew up around some very interesting characters.

At the same time, I experienced quite a strict upbringing courtesy of my mother (undue motherly influence – another Kerouac similarity?). I never really cut loose until college, and even then my conditioning for 17 years kept me fairly constrained. I went the conservative route, true to my upbringing, until a classic “mid-life” crisis in my mid-forties resulted in me dumping my marriage, career, lifestyle, everything. That was right before I discovered Kerouac, and the freedom he espoused and lived strongly validated the radical changes I’d made in my life.

I admire Jack Kerouac for his dedication to craft. He was a writer because he wrote. He said, “Write in recollection and amazement for yourself.” Think about that. Even a famous author is only read by a small percentage of the human beings on the planet. Much of what writers put to paper (or hard drive or blog) never gets read by anyone except the writer. Ultimately, you are writing for yourself out of some innate drive to do it. You see yourself as a writer, so you write.

I’ve posted about how a writer needs three things: something to say, a way to say it, and someone to say it to. I’ve always felt like a writer, even excelling at it in school, but the “something to say” part stymied me until I encountered Kerouac. He wrote what he knew. That inspired me. I knew I could write, and I knew there was an audience for good writing. All I needed was something to say.

Jack provided me with the latter. His two books, On The Road and The Dharma Bums, became the fodder for my first book, The Beat Handbook: 100 Days of Kerouactions.  

Along my path to self-publication (which I will detail in a future post), the words of Sylvia Plath kept me moving forward: "And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

I owe Jack Kerouac a true debt of gratitude. Without him, I would not be a published author. It’s that simple. And it’s that complicated.

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