Falling Down With Kerouac (And Standing Back Up)
Jack Kerouac’s Book of Sketches fell off my shelf last night, toppling over my friend Kurt, who bumped into the wall accidentally. Some pictures fell too but luckily nothing broke. Glass is the worst to clean up. Books — not so bad.
“Hey-o, what’s this?” He asked, picking up the 5x7 publication, flipping through it.
Reading Kerouac in high school is how I fell in love with writing. On The Road was one of the first “classics” that I read outside of academia. It was an extra-curricular that I happened to stumble across by means of fate. The internet was not as prevalent back then. Things still fell in your lap. If I hadn’t read that book, my life as an author, as a writer, a teacher, an individual, and a human would not be what it is today.
He helped me discover my talents and passions.
Now, as controversial as some of his content and style can be, I find solace in the fact that there’s an entire audience of people [still] out there who truly understand and appreciate that words can be an art form — that language is like paint or clay or wood and can be used to expose the human experience. Kerouac takes this notion by the collar in his collection of “sketches.” He utilizes phonetics to conceptualize his personal worldview. Whether or not the illustrations were influenced by one of his many chemical vices is irrelevant. We are reading the universe as he perceived it.
That is art. It’s the seed holding us together. An expression. An idea. A piece of legacy to contribute to the collective human experience.
“Classic Kerouac,” I said.
Kurt laughed. “The original beatnik!”
He handed it to me and I put everything back (after making fun of his bearded ineptitude), only to realize the next morning that the universe was trying to tell me something; trying to communicate some sort of lesson (as it always seems to do). I should probably listen.
Over coffee the next morning, I began skimming through the collection, never truly analyzing it upon my receipt (a gift — thanks, Mom!).
The Penguin print was published in 2006 and features work from Kerouac’s journals written between summer of 1952 and the winter of 1954. He calls them “sketches” in an artistic sense of the manner. Words as an art. A compilation of language. Sketches without verse. Most of it might seem like gibberish to an unappreciative eye, as most of my collected journals will one day certainly evolve into. But among the swamp of words lies little bits of glitter. Pieces of sunshine poking through the overcast like stars in the summer sky. These paintings are snippets of life as he saw it.
Now — I’m a huge fan of Kerouac. I have permanent art on my body that shall count as evidence to support this notion. But these sketches, however artistic and creative, have a tendency to appear like babble in first glance. Don’t let it scare you.
He even admits it himself upon frustration:
Anyway, I read a few of them that morning, laughed, and eventually placed the book down on my coffee table. It was a coaching day; an early away game — I had to drive out to Princeton and didn’t have much time to enjoy it. But then the following morning, I caved and skimmed some more of it over more coffee. I found several bits that deemed worthy of being noted somewhere that wasn’t backed by the flow of Penguin dollars.
Here are some clips I found:
“Unbroken word sketches / of the subconscious pictures / of sections of the / memory life of an / imbecile genius resting / in the madhouse of his / mind — The word / flow must not be disturbed, / or picture forgotten for / words’ sakes, nor the / pictures stretched beyond / their bookmovie strength / except parenthetically,” (p. 259).
“heretofore unknown words / & word sounds ored up / from the Conscious of / the Race. But when / the words are clear, & / everything is clear, then / the other minds see / clear to think it / clear; but when the / clear words are un / clear to the other / minds, they are clear / in themselves, as is / the reflection on the / water,” (p. 374–375).
Here’s one that I assume was written during his stay at Big Sur:
I read this one aloud to Allison:
“I blame God for / making life so boring — / Drink is good for / love — good for / music — let it / be good for writing,” (p. 283).
“Babe,” I said, after letting her absorb the quote. “If I ever die before you, and my work somehow has gathered any little bit of financial investment… please, please, please feel free to sell my wads of work. If anything in that pile of notebooks and moleskins is worth money in its raw form, then by all means take the money. Hell, buy yourself a new pair of shoes.”
She laughed but I added it to my will.
I subsequently asked if she thought we drank too much. She laughed harder at that.
We are a creature of habit. We keep things in memory banks to recycle and reuse. They come in many forms, sometimes unwanted. Ideas. Skills. Hierarchies. Idiosyncrasies. Art is the viral thread through all of it. It’s fucking contagious.
Mine is the act of writing. It is how I process information; how I express my thoughts. I certainly write better than I speak. (Maybe one day I’ll start a podcast to prove it to you.)
As a young, inexperienced writer growing up in the 90’s and early 2000’s, much of my writing felt similar to this Kerouacian phonetic (minus that Big Sur one… *smh*). I remember bringing my first Moleskine with me everywhere as a teenager. It was covered in stickers. I thought I was a beat.
My friends would tease me about having it in the most obscure situations. Kurt would call me “nerdburger” when he caught me painting patterns onto the page in the corner by myself at parties.
At that point in my life, I’d only read Kerouac’s On The Road, so I had minimal influence behind this words-as-an-art methodology, even though I’d been utilizing the style among several others. I’ve always been a creative person. It was how I was raised. My mother always had projects for my brother and I. We built birdhouses, painted murals, made t-shirts and hats; we had our hands at photography and even some woodworking (thanks, Dad!). Yet, I’m the only one from my immediate family who took that creative mindset and applied it to the art of writing.
Writing is not something with boundaries. Styles and techniques imply boundary; but, writing itself does not. You set those boundaries yourself.
The older I got, the less time I had to sit down and write. There was always bills to pay or dinner dates to catch up with. Not to mention that big thing — work. My art had gotten rusty.
It had to change.
There was a lesson here; I was sure of it. Something in the universe pulled some strings and caused Kurt to bump into the wall. That book, Book of Sketches, came back into my life for a reason: to remind me what words are capable of and that I shouldn’t let go so easily. Language is an art. Just like everything else in this life if you look for it.
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MLA: Kerouac, Jack, and George Condo. Book of Sketches: 1952–57. New York: Penguin poets, 2006. Print.
APA: Kerouac, J., & Condo, G. (2006). Book of sketches: 1952–57. New York: Penguin poets.
Chicago: Kerouac, Jack, and George Condo. 2006. Book of sketches: 1952–57. New York: Penguin poets.
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Happy Birthday, Mr. Kerouac! (3/12)
Further reading on Kerouac’s influence from Maria Popova (thanks, Maria!) to celebrate: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/03/12/jack-kerouac-golden-eternity/
Also, how to meditate: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/03/12/jack-kerouac-how-to-meditate/