The Kerouac-Ginsberg Letters: You Have to Write More than You Think

Jack Kerouac attended Columbia University for a while. It was there he met and started hanging around with some other names you may know – most notable fellow novelist William S. Burroughs and the poet Allen Ginsberg. Because we can’t talk Kerouac without talking about his crew, we get a two-for-one mentorship deal!

Starting in earnest in 1944 – when Kerouac was held as a material witness to the murder of David Kammerer – Ginsberg and Kerouac began writing a ton of letters to each other. If one or the other of them was outta town, in jail, or in a mental hospital, they wrote. Recently this avalanche of correspondence was collected and edited by Bill Morgan (for the Ginsberg estate) and David Stanford (for the Kerouac estate) in a great volume called Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. In the introduction, the editors talk about the quantity and quality of the letters: “Some of their letters are stunningly extensive single-spaced epics, longer than published stories or articles. There are aerogrammes from afar, words jammed to the edges, filling every inch, and handwritten letters on lined pages, tiny notebook sheets, old letterhead. Add-ons are scrawled on envelopes, and sometimes-lengthy postscripts tucked in.”

stunningly extensive single-spaced epics” they say. And how.

The breadth and scope and word count of these letters left me a little breathless – partly in awe, partly in surprise, and partly in bafflement at the sheer volume of insights, information, and bullshit they (Kerouac and Ginsberg, not the editors) threw around. They talked books, women, men, religion, publishing, poetry, psychology, sex, not-having-sex, having-sex, and, of course, writing. It’s easy to get overwhelmed looking through so much material.

I was easily distracted by such tidbits as:

But I do not wish to escape to myself, I wish to escape from myself.” ~ Ginsberg to Kerouac, letter ca. late July 1945

However I hate you. Because years ago you and Burrows [Burroughs] used to laugh at me because I saw people as godlike.” Kerouac to Ginsberg, letter ca. December 16, 1948

I filled a 150 page notebook in the last four days with a detailed recreation of the events of the last month.” Ginsberg to Kerouac ca. early May 1949

The thirteen year old girl wrote a story on my typewriter about the Giant in the garden and the little children who were afraid to go in because they thought the garden door was locked, but it wasn’t at all and the door opened, and they went in, and the Giant cried with joy. This proves to me that children really know more than adults. Children are preoccupied with the same things Shakespeare knew.” Kerouac to Ginsberg, letter July 5-11, 1949

(I could go on, but will stop there. Like I said, easily distracted…)

Reading through the letters gave me an insight more basic than whatever subject matter Kerouac and Ginsberg discussed. As I read the letters (yes, sometimes wondering if they would ever end) I kept hearing the voice of my buddy John quoting the ‘rule’ that a writer must write a million words of crap before you get to anything good. And here, right in front of me, was what the first million words looks like…not that they were writing crap, but that they were writing a lot.

Here’s what a million words looks like:

• unpublished novels and poems – Kerouac and Ginsberg both had piles of stuff hanging around. Kerouac’s first published novel was 300,000 words before it was edited, a staggering count

• journals and notebooks that are never intended to see the light of day – note Ginsberg filled a 150 page notebook in four days…time to turn off the T.V. people!

• letters – there were 300 letters between Kerouac and Ginsberg that the editors of Letters worked through to create the almost-500 page collection (the editors didn’t include the letters post-1963)

It is an ungodly amount of material. A lot of writers think that finishing the first draft of a first novel is BIG (and it is – just in a different way than they think). Think about it: if your first novel is 100,000 words – a respectable sum – you still have to do that 10 more times. Tired yet?

Hope not. Because not all words are created equal. If you’re just throwing down words without learning what goes along with them (grammar, meaning, story-process) then those words don’t count as much as the words you put down with intent and concentration. In other words: you must practice with those million words.

Yep. You’ve got to write more than you think you do.

Nowadays we don’t really write letters, and diaries and journals have been replaced by blogs and Facebook. But just because our methods are electronic shouldn’t change the amount of work we put into our words. Blasting off an email can be just as artistic as writing out a letter. When you tell your friend about your day or your thoughts in an email, make those words count. Be descriptive. Use details. Tell your buddy how a thirteen year old girl is like Shakespeare.

Blogs are also not a space to be sloppy. Sure, we all flub and typo, and it may feel more casual than other types of writing, but it’s still a place to practice and get thoughts down articulately.

Hm, from the length of this entry, seems like I’m trying to beef up my own word count….

Okay, that’s enough from me. How close are you guys to 1,000,000 words? Well? Whatcha waitin’ for? You’ve got words to write. Get crackin’!

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3 thoughts on “The Kerouac-Ginsberg Letters: You Have to Write More than You Think

  1. I remember writing letters like that to friends and now, like you say, most people find that idea unimaginable. It was not wasted time. It was connecting our hearts through paper and ink even though the distances were great. The thrill of getting a letter from someone you care about in your mailbox was wonderful! The letter would be read multiple times and enjoyed, then responded to carefully. You touched the paper they’d touched and felt like you were with them. Besides that, it was great practice for writing stories. Sometimes an event shared in a letter would give you a story. It worked for all the Beats, most famously for Kerouac because he hit the closest to our dreams and fears. He loved the outlaw concept, yet was happiest at home with his Mom and the world running in an orderly fashion around him so he could write. Like most of us, he dabbled in dope, various kinds of sexuality, and wondering just what the hell IS our purpose here. Ginsberg, Burroughs, Cassidy-all plunged into their respective desires with nary a look back. Which way is better? Who knows? Burroughs made it the longest by eschewing responsibility for many things. I have the book of letters and I like to sip from it, like I do Kerouac’s book of sketches. Sometimes those who break the most ground look amazingly normal and do it quietly.

      1. Well there’s not much motivation when you can look at a friend’s site and see how they’re doing or shoot a text. For better or worse, that distance the boys were feeling from each other isn’t felt by us or even people in other countries with Skype and Facebook live. When you have those faster options that are fairly cheap now, people opt for other choices. I guess we’ll have to follow the literary heroes of today’s internet trails?

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