I found myself in the British Library the other day doing some research, and on the way in I noticed an exhibition about Jack Kerouac. I don’t know how many years ago I read ‘On the Road’ and ‘Dharma Bums’ but I do know that Kerouac’s writing had a big impact on me, so I stopped to look.
The exhibition is about his life and his autobiographic writing, as well as the context of it, with many photographs of him and his friends/characters. The centerpiece is a scroll, and this caught my imagination as Kerouac’s writing technique focused on flow.
Flow. Hard to describe and even harder to practice. I am mesmerized by writers’ descriptions of how they have achieved flow, and Kerouac’s account was illuminating and made me think more about my own state of mind whilst writing.
Before he started to write, he made copious notes and drawings. He collected all these together when he was due to start typing, and made his final preparation. He took sheets of letter sized paper and sellotaped them together until they were a continuous roll. He then fed this into his typewriter and began. He had commented that even changing the paper in the typewriter would interrupt his flow.
Kerouac wrote ‘On the Road’ in three weeks. Three weeks of continuous typing. He allegedly took substances to keep him awake and just typed. When he was finished, he rolled up the enormous length of paper and sent it to his publisher.
It is this original scroll that is on show in the British Library.
In today’s world of word-processors it’s difficult to understand the demands of typing, let alone typing a whole book. There is no backspace or delete, only tippex. It makes me wonder what kind of medium Kerouac would have chosen today for his creative flow. Kerouac must have actually typed his stream of consciousness, which goes against any advice about writing today. From the look of the scroll manuscript, Kerouac made few editorial changes, with a few notes here and there, and some crossings out, but this was the final version. Apparently, he had up to six version going at the same time, all with alterations.
So, anyone who has read ‘On the Road’ is reading more or less what Kerouac was thinking, uninterrupted by the demands of life, sleep, or changing the paper in his typewriter.
I find this astonishing, as my writing life is interrupted by many different procrastination and diversions. However, Kerouac’s experience of flow is one that I share. The first time I experienced it, that feeling that my mind is freewriting, that the story I am telling is coming from nowhere or from the story I had plotted, with new things happening outside the plot, I read the piece back later and couldn’t believe that I had written it!
It makes me wonder if flow is better facilitated in an uninterrupted environment, and that, with full focus on one task, areas of the mind, or even consciousness are accessed. For me, flow is almost meditative, and likewise, meditation relies on emptying the mind and then focusing on one aspect. This link is supported by alpha brain waves being present in both meditation and creativity.
Further reading about Kerouac revealed that he veered between long periods sitting at home writing, and shorter periods partying with the friends his characters are based on. The autobiographic nature of his work is another aspect of his writing that is not encouraged today. Kerouac was thirty-five when ‘On the Road’ was published, and has often been hailed as an overnight success, on the back of a change in culture towards the Beat Generation. However, Kerouac states that he had begun research for the book almost a decade before before typing up his findings – hardly overnight success.
It’s always interesting to hear about how others write, and the context in which they do it. I think that this is an important part of admitting that you are a writer, and owning your practice. Published or not, too many people report feeling ‘like a fake’ or ‘undeserving’. Writing is a complex business, and to feel flow is to truly dedicate oneself to the page. A long, long page in Kerouac’s case and although I’m not going to sellotape pages together or stay up all night, I’m going to try to write for longer, uninterrupted for a while, all inspired by a fading scroll in the British Library. Well worth a visit.