There are many myths about writers. In particular writers who have legendary lives, great personality, and character that can become icons after death, sometimes they become icons while they are living. I think we are very attracted to the myths and the stories of these writers (place your favorite writer here) because the tales cut out all the boring daily crap that all of us have to do every day. The day-in-day-out bullshit. Every one, even the icons, had the daily in and outs, especially when they were struggling to be seen, struggling to become writers, but all that drudgery gets edited out in the storytelling. I think this is fine. I love imagining my writers traveling from place to place living life to the fullest without any hangovers or lost luggage or working the nine to five. I already live that stuff. But, some myths are a little more dangerous. I don’t mean dangerous in the sense of what a writer chooses to do with their personal life. You’re an idiot if you think you can do as much heroin as you want, drink as much booze as possible, have years’ of unprotected sex, or engage in crime, and think that there wont be consequences (and the writers that did engage did suffer the consequences of their choices). I mean another kind of dangerous. A more symbolic kind of danger a writing danger.
The myth of the writer who does it all alone and in one draft. Why is this “dangerous”? Because young and new writers believe this myth, and then they compare their own work to the completed work of published authors. A writer may have to do what feels like a million re-writes, and need people to help them with advice and feedback, and then more writing, and all this work without immediate perfection can seem like failure. Why am I not perfect? Why can’t I write a great novel, a great short story? So-and-so just wrote it in one draft, and it published! So-and-so is only sixteen, and has a bestseller, and I’m fifty and can’t even get an excerpt published. Maybe, I’m just talking about myself. I am talking about myself (except for the age fifty part.) I am a victim of comparison. My first drafts are filled with run on sentences, and a character may lack depth. I suck at grammar. It doesn’t come easily. I always have to look things up: is it affect or effect? Everyone or every one? People don’t love my work, therefore I am a failure. So-and-so did it without even trying. They are more intelligent more talented it was meant for them. Not me. I know I am writing about me, but I also know I am not the only one that has felt this way because I’ve heard it from others. I don’t think this way any longer or at least I have a better control over the comparison monster. But, admittedly, I felt much joy over having one of these iconic writers seeped in writing myths debunked; I did it my way all alone, and in one try— but not really.
When I was young, about nineteen or twenty, I picked up On the Road. I loved the book. I loved it for the reason many other people loved the book. The freedom of the road, the freedom from the conformity of rules of society, the freedom from the rules of writing structure. It was freedom from the narrow path that life appeared to be. The story is that Jack Kerouac wrote this book out on a single roll of teletype paper in three weeks. He took this scroll to his publisher and it was published and stream of consciousness was born without editing. Amazing. Over time, I learned and knew that it took Kerouac many years’ and notes, and life experience to write his famous novel, but the thing that has always bothered me is the no editing no re-writes. The single scroll as the final and published manuscript. I just didn’t believe it could be true. The more I wrote the less I believed it. Then it happened. I came across a letter.
I’ve been on a personal mission for the past, I’d say, two or three years’. The seed of my “project” or better defined obsession began over ten years’ ago when a friend gave me a book. It was an anthology of women beat writers. There were women? Women who wrote, and did art, and contributed to a literary movement other than having sex with or taking care of men who write? Years’ later I read Joyce Johnson‘s aptly titled memoir Minor Characters. Then two or three years’ ago I began to read anything written by women from the beat generation. I have lofty plans of using this gathering of literary and generational information, but that’s a later post. My recent book has been Carolyn Cassidy’s Off the Road. Carolyn was the second wife of Neal Cassidy, although Cassidy had a good way of overlapping his wives, but Carolyn was with Neal the longest and most consistently. The memoir is about Carolyn and her life with Neal, but Jack and Allen Ginsburg, amongst many of their friends had been in her life, very intimately (she even had a brief meeting with Henry Miller in a scene I love!). I picked up the book because I have an obsession with the period and the people, but Carolyn’s book gave me an extra bit of much desired insight.
“When Allen received the manuscript of On The Road, he wrote us, ‘Jack’s book arrived and it is a holy mess-“
Carolyn wrote in Chapter thirty-two of her memoir.
By this time much of the life of Jack, Neal and Allen are kept alive through letter writing. According to Off the Road, Bill (Burroughs) recommended that Jack send his manuscript to Allen to read and to make Allen his agent. Allen liked the novel, but it was far from publishable, and according to Allen, it needed editing and work.
-it’s great all right but he did everything he could to fuck it up with a lot of meaningless bullshit I think,”
Then Carolyn shares Allen’s letter in her book. It is his analysis of what he thought was wrong with the manuscript.
…page after page of surrealist free association that doesn’t make sense to anybody except to someone that has blown Jack. I don’t think it can be published anywhere at its present state…it just skips back and forth and touches on things momentarily and refers to events nowhere else in the book…why is he tempting rejection and fate?…Fucking spoiled child, like all of us, maybe, but goddamn it, it ain’t right to take on so paranoiac just to see how far you can go…He was not exploring a new deep form; he was purposely just screwing around as if anything he did no matter what he did was OK, no bones attached. (Off the Road, Carolyn Cassidy, pg. 187)
I was pretty excited about this passage. Not because I enjoyed hearing someone being torn down, but because it humanized the history and the myth. It wasn’t perfect the first time. It needed work, and Allen Ginsburg his friend didn’t know what Jack what was doing with this “new type of writing.” Allen wrote his feedback to Jack in another letter. Jack took the feedback, got depressed and went to Mexico, and he never wrote again. We know the last part is not true, but he did get depressed as any artist does when they first get feedback, no one want’s to hear that their creation is not a masterpiece right out of the gate. He did go to Mexico, but afterward he worked on the book. He also wrote more books, and he also edited them. I will admit when I read the letter I exclaimed out loud, “I fucking knew it!” It doesn’t take away any impact of what the book gave to me, or the influence of the beats in general, what it did is made it more human and less legendary. I can be human. A human writer. A legend, well, that is not up to me; that’s created from outside, and I am more concerned with the inside.
We are a very populated world, filled with many talented and creative humans all wanting to be seen and heard. We are also a judgmental breed. We want and demand perfection, and we base our perfection on many of the myths that have been created around the “artist.” One myth that is very American (as far as I can tell) is the myth of the lone wolf the great single explorer. “I did it my way. I pulled myself up by the bootstraps.” We admire those who do it all on their own. Only, no one does anything on their own. No one. Some people may not be aware of their connections or give them the due thanks they deserve, and some people are selfish and believe they do all their own work, but there is always someone in the background. And this, this is a good thing because it can get lonely out there, and I’m sure Kerouac learned a little something about the loneliness of the myth, in fact, it may have helped to kill him. It’s good to have a holy mess because now you’ve got something to work with something real and tangible. If you do write a masterpiece in one single sitting and it publishes, please do us all a favor, keep it a secret (you great legend you).