Lessons from the master of “spontaneous prose”.
Steve Allen: How long did it take you to write “On the Road”?
Jack Kerouac: Three weeks.
SA: Three weeks! How long were you on the road yourself?
JK: Seven years.
SA: I was on the road once for three weeks and it took me seven years to write about it.
The above dialogue is an excerpt from an interview Jack Kerouac gave to Steve Allen in 1959.
“On the Road” is a book that defined a whole generation and set thousands of young Americans on the road for decades after its publication. It has 320 pages and yet it only took three weeks to write.
This is something every writer aspires to, right? Producing high-quality content at such high speed would enable the creation of countless works of art. We would become such prolific writers! What a dream!
The thing is… “On the Road” was on the make for seven years.
Kerouac wildly crossed the country back and forth several times, he met dozens of characters in his journey, he embarked on crazy adventures, he had his share of sins, he loved, he suffered, he laughed, he lived.
He was out there discovering the world, being his own character, writing his own story. He embraced what the world had to offer. He experienced everything he could.
So, when the time came for him to write a book about a man traveling the country, he didn’t need to think twice. In fact, he didn’t need to think at all. So much so, that he used massive scrolls of paper, just so he would not need to interrupt his writing to change the pages.
He didn’t need to think about his writing because it was all inside of him.
Arranging words in enticing sentences is something everybody can work on, it’s a technique we can study and master. But it is not the hardest part of writing.
The hardest part of writing is having something relevant to say.
And you only have something relevant to say if you have an original point of view, if you have experiences to share, if you put yourself out there and lived. Then you can write about life.
Don’t pack your bags (just yet)
This doesn’t mean you should grab a backpack now and go hitchhike across the country for the next seven years. We are not all white men, without responsibilities, living in the 1940s.
What you should do is much simpler: you should live.
I don’t mean passing the days. I mean really experiencing life. Grabbing the time you have, making it count, and gathering as many different experiences as possible.
Be open. Have conversations with others, especially with those who are different from you. Ask questions. Take risks. Feel uncomfortable. Say yes.
Even if you never intended to write in the first place, you will find yourself with stories to share. And when you share them, people will feel something, because these are not empty words, these are the direct result of the feelings you had when you were going through the experience. And isn’t that the ultimate goal of a writer?
Now, enough of my words. Go out there and start writing your own.
“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.”
— Jack Kerouac