Lightning, the Lightning Bug, and the Price of Some of Kerouac’s Revisions

**Be forewarned, adult language/content**

Mark Twain once said something like (I don’t have the direct quote in front of me): “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Agree or disagree, Twain has a point. To illustrate, I give you two passages from On the Road — the 1957 version and the Original Scroll version.

In the following section of the book, Kerouac has just offered to stay overnight on an old boat. (Character names are different in each passage. For clarity purposes just realize that Remi=Henri and Lee Ann = Diane.) Note that the character of Lee Ann/Diane is naked and sunning herself on the boat deck. Kerouac’s character is looking at her from above, on the poop deck.

Here is the first one, from the 1957 version of On the Road:

Remi was astounded; his admiration for me doubled. ‘Sal, I’ll pay you five dollars if you have the nerve to do that. Don’t you realize this thing may be haunted by the ghosts of old sea captains? I’ll not only pay you five, I’ll row you out and pack you a lunch and lend you blankets and a candle.’
      ‘Agreed!’ I said. Remi ran to tell Lee Ann. I wanted to jump down from a mast and land right in her, but I kept my promise to Remi. I averted my eyes from her.”

Now, same passage in the Scroll version:

Henri was astounded; his admiration for me doubled. ‘Jack I’ll pay you five dollars if you have the nerve to do that. Don’t you realize this thing may be haunted by the ghosts of old seacaptains. I’ll not only pay you five I’ll row you out and pack you a lungh and lend you blankets and candle.’ ‘Agreed!’ I said. Henri ran to tell Diane. He was amazed at my courage. I wanted to jump down from a mast and land right in her cunt, but I was true to Henri’s promise. I averted my eyes.

You’ll note some obvious differences: There are no paragraph breaks in the Scroll version. There are fewer commas in the Scroll version. Kerouac fixed the “I was true to Henri’s promise” — where it sounds like Henri made a promise instead of Jack, in the 1957 version. He also cut the scroll line about Henri being impressed by his courage in the 1957 version. (Probably so he didn’t sound quite so egotistical to the reader.)

Now I’m going to do something I never thought I would do, and defend the word “cunt.” (You have no idea how much I hate this word.)

‘Kay. So in the edited, 1957 version, Kerouac utilizes the phrase “in her” to illustrate the sexual desire he felt for the naked woman on the deck. Fine. It’s straightforward, still pretty offensive, and gets across the point that he is horny. Agreed? So, all in all, he has managed to convey what the original scroll conveys.

However, that’s also a phrase utilized in romance novels when the couples make love. In today’s terminology, it can have romantic undertones.

Cunt has no such ties. When Kerouac uses the word cunt, there is no romantic undertone, there is no respect, it is all about sex. And not just sex. Fucking. Yep, another strong word. Again, which cuts out the emotional attachment that some readers might want to put in. Now the reader understands that there are no romantic undertones, an underlying element of disrespect and objectifying the woman — so we understand something else basic about this dude’s character — as well as all the things that ‘in her’ accomplished: offensive and horny.

So…the more vulgar word in this case is more clear, more in tune with the character’s wants and desires, and is definitely, definitely more striking to the reader. Why not just slap the reader with a dead, wet fish to wake them up? It is effective.

Another thing changes with that one word: the tone. The 1957 excerpt almost feels Peter Pan-esque. The focus seems to stay on sea captains and ghosts and boys playing around. Even the ‘in her’ seems more like flying playfulness. Not so much in the scroll version. We are reminded that these are grown men who perform grown-up acts and can cause grown-up pain. It raises the stakes.

All of those things were edited out, and it still remains a classic. And interestingly, according to a very unscientific Goodreads poll – more readers seem to have given more stars to the Scroll version. Could it be because the 1957 version was edited too cleanly? I think: yeah.

Charactouac? or Kerouacter?

New Criticism locates meaning in the internal qualities of literary works, specifically the unity of their multiple verbal structures. as much as it values unity and convergence, New Criticism eschews authorial intent and historical context as bases for interpretation, although it allows that they might supplement understanding.” ~Joshua Kupetz, “The Straight Line Will Take You Only to Death” – an intro to On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac

In his intro to the original On the Road scroll, Kupetz, editor of the scroll and an English professor, says he has been confronted by the idea that Kerouac “mattered first as a personality.” He proceeds to defend the scroll as an example that Kerouac knew what he was doing structurally, verbally, and creatively when he wrote the scroll – and is therefore to be acknowledged first as a strong writer. Which I totally agree with.

The problem is, Kerouac creates himself as a character. He inserts his personality into the story – more directly than other writers. So, try as a critic might to separate the two, the structure of the story is embedded with the biographical information that a critic would work so hard to separate out.

The 1957 version – the version published originally – is easier to separate from Kerouac-the-Author because he edited the thing. (Which, I might add, calls into question the idea that the fast, unedited way is the Beat Way to Write, as does the fact that Kerouac doesn’t seem to have any more scrolls in his closet….) There are chapters and paragraph breaks. And, most tellingly, the characters have character names.

The scroll, on the other hand, is an outright invitation to critics and readers to put Kerouac-the-Author in with Kerouac-the-Character – a charactouac or a kerouacter, whichever you prefer. The main character is not “Sal Paradise” in the scroll. It’s Jack. No “Dean Moriarty” here – only the real-life Neal Cassady. The scroll reads more like today’s literary memoirs, more like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.

So that’s a problem. If the scroll is presented as the definitive edition, how are we supposed to pull Kerouac out of it without unraveling the whole thing? It’d be like trying to pull Maya Angelou out of her oeuvre. Good luck with that!

If the scroll is presented as “definitive,” if the scroll is what we are supposed to read, there’s no way to pull Kerouac the man away from Kerouac the character.

But we can separate the two using the 1957 edition – and I have to say that, regardless of how Kerouac may have felt about editing it…he did edit it. As an author, that was his choice. Should we ignore his editing work?

I don’t have answers. I’m just posing questions.

Speaking as a writer rather than a reader, I would hope to heaven that my first drafts are not considered my definitive editions. Just sayin’.

As it is, I think that it’s easy to respect both for what they are. The 1957 version for it’s classic structures – however far away from Kerouac’s ‘vision’.

And we can appreciate the scroll because it allows us to see Kerouac and accept or reject him as a character within his own context. There aren’t many pieces out there that do that….

How much of an author’s personality – or character – should we see in a fictional piece? Does it throw you out of the story or does it add a ring of authenticity?

Kerouac’s Collaborative Circle: Indirect Collaboration

You may think that all you need to write good books is will-power, a stellar idea, and a cave. You may think that hiding in a cubby hole with a full-battery-power laptop is all there is to turning out a tale worth telling. Perhaps you’re a poet who thinks that a lonely hill, some loose leaf paper, and a pen with free-flowing ink is the way to go. Isolation. A room of your own. Space to create.

Eh. That’s only partly true.

Sure, you do need quiet time. I’m as big a fan of Peace and his buddy Quiet as the next writer who needs to escape cloying children, spouses who need attention, and houses that are collapsing around their ears because the laundry has grown legs and is threatening world domination. “First this House. Then this Neighborhood. Finally the World!”

Laundry Stuff

There is no way to complete a masterpiece, or even a passably passable story, without the time and space with which to create it. You need alone time.  I get it.

But there’s a BIG OL’ BUT.

But. The truly great writers all had at least one buddy to bounce ideas off of.

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were also known as the Inklings. H.G Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Ford Madox Ford create a dizzying circle of genius. Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury. And guess what? Shakespeare was in the theatre, the ultimate for collaboration.

Now, when I say collaboration, there are two different types: direct and indirect. Direct collaboration is where a writer works, ahem, directly with one or more people on a specific piece. Writers working with agents or editors to shape-up a piece for publication is an example of direct collaboration. When Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs wrote And the Hippos were Boiled in Their Tanks together, that is also direct collaboration.

Indirect collaboration involves the idea of influence. It involves writers talking to one another, perhaps critiquing, and basically sounding off on writing in general. In Collaborative Circles and Creative Work, author Michael P. Ferrell defines a collaborative circle as “a primary group consisting of peers who share similar occupational goals and who, through long periods of dialogue and collaboration, negotiate a common vision that guides their work. The vision consists of a shared set of assumptions about their discipline, including what constitutes good work, how to work, what subjects are worth taking on, and how to think about them.

I propose that without Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al., Kerouac would not have written as well as he did – and since most of his characters were based on his real-life associates, his storylines would be totally gone. The Beats are a textbook example of the creative collaborative circle:

• They were “peers with similar occupational goals and interests”: Kerouac = novelist/poet. Ginsberg = poet. Burroughs = novelist. Lucien Carr = writer. Neal Cassady = criminal/philosopher (which all groups need, I guess)
• “Through long periods of dialogue and collaboration…”: the Beats left tons of dialogic evidence behind in letters, journals, printed interviews, etc.
• “…negotiate a common vision that guides their work.”: the Beats called their vision The New Vision (I know, you’d’ve thought it’d be more original…) Basically, art was mankind’s highest state of being – and, yes, it figures artists would think that – creativity was to be nurtured however possible. Dreams. Drugs. Whatever. “The new vision assumed the death of square morality and replaced that meaning with belief in creativity. I think we were quite moralistic in a way.” ~Allen Ginsberg, qtd in The Beats by Mike Evans.

And as a group they agreed on:
• “what constitutes good work”: apparently not Fitzgerald, but Yeats and Kafka were all right
“how to work”: fast, no real revisions, Benzedrine and other drugs as stimulants
• “subjects worth taking on”: political subjects, the ‘lower’ classes of man to show reality or truth
• “and how to think about them”: everything open to creative expression, including bums, druggies, etc.

If you read any of Kerouac’s work, you will be confronted with his version of the New Vision.

And if you read any of Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al., you will see a different-yet-similar interpretation of that vision filtered through a different-yet-similar mind. It’s kinda trippy.

Kerouac, Burroughs, and Direct Collaboration

Kerouac, Burroughs, and Direct Collaboration

Direct collaboration, as opposed to indirect collaboration (which we’ll talk about next week) is where a writer works directly with one or more people on a specific piece. Jess Weaver and I developing the Christmas play for Springs Ensemble Theatre’s winter show is an example.
Shameless self-promotion moment:
Christmas Play
Writers working with agents or editors to shape-up a piece for publication is another, regularly-happening example of direct collaboration.

In 1944 Jack Kerouac and his friend William Burroughs took turns writing alternating chapters of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a novel about the sensationalized murder of one of their circle, David Kammerer, by another member of their circle, Lucien Carr.

First, a super-quick background on the case — or you can go watch Kill Your Darlings starring Daniel Radcliffe, which covers this same story:

Kammerer was a teacher out in Missouri, and Carr was a student. When they met, Kammerer was 25 years old, and Carr was eleven. Kammerer basically took Carr under his wing (otherwise known as: followed the kid around) and, as James Grauerholz sums up in his Afterword to Hippos: “Eight years, five states, four prep schools, and two colleges later, that connection was grown too intense.” Carr tried to join the merchant marines, hoping to get on a ship and head out of country and leave Kammerer behind. That plan didn’t work out. On August 14, 1944, Carr stabbed Kammerer and threw his body into the Hudson River. Carr surrendered a day later, after first confessing to Burroughs and then to Kerouac – who may or may not have helped conceal evidence (I can’t find a definitive answer, so if anyone knows, please let me know). Carr and Kerouac were both arrested. Carr ultimately served two years. Kerouac only got bailed out because he agreed to marry his first wife, Edie Parker, and her family paid for his release.

Seeing as how writers are such an understanding lot…Carr’s friends jumped to write about the whole situation. Ginsberg worked a few chapters for his own book, and according to Grauerholz, his version “is the most detailed, and possibly the most realistic, of all the dramatizations of Kammerer’s final hours.”

And Kerouac and Burroughs decided to write their version together.

I’m not surprised that writers involved in a collaborative circle would choose to write together. And I’m certainly not surprised Kerouac and Burroughs chose to write about an event that affected their lives, and the lives of other members of their circle, so completely. I am happy that the publication was saved until after all of the major parties have died. (Not for lack of trying, apparently, but Carr requested that they back off – which they did.)

Anyway, Kerouac and Burroughs did write the book together, choosing one of the most obvious forms of collaborative writing: the alternating chapter method.That’s just like it sounds. Burroughs took a chapter, then handed it off to Kerouac, who wrote the second chapter, and so on. I can’t speak for Kerouac and Burroughs, or how easy/difficult it is to do with two people, but I have used this method.

With about ten other people.

There are pros and cons.

• Word count adds up quick. It’s satisfying to watch the story grow and feel the ownership of it…and do only a portion of the work. If you’ve never finished a big thing like a novel, sharing the work with someone else can give you the impetus to finish your own work. From what I can tell, Hippos was the first big work completed by either Kerouac or Burroughs…even though it wasn’t published until decades later.
• It increases communication, which forces you, as a writer, to articulate what you’re trying to do. That helps with your solo work as well.  You have to define your terms.
• You back up your work more. Hit SAVE!
• Keeps you on your toes – harder to predict what another writer will do with the material. Makes you think creatively within a piece and see various possibilities. (A lot like working improve for actors.) One of the rules for the round story projects that my writing group works on is that you can’t negate something one of the other writers introduced. So you can’t blow everyone up and start over in a new setting with characters you ‘like better.’ Hippos has a uniformity to the story that Kerouac and Burroughs had to have worked out in a similar fashion.
• It’s a great way to learn the structure of stories, because without thinking about that, the whole thing gets wonky fast. As it is, Hippos has an episodic build: first the characters go here, and then there, and then here again. There are some neatly interwoven threads, but there are a lot of diversions as well.
• It’s just fun. It keeps it playful, even if you’re dead serious.

• You don’t have full control of the story. You MUST compromise. (If you don’t, it equals arguments with people who you generally respect and admire – why else would you choose to write with them?)
• Can result in a choppy story, no matter how hard you try. Hippos suffers from this, sorry to say.
• Schedules are a pain to work out. – Luckily, Kerouac and Burroughs were pretty much living together with some other buddies while they worked on Hippos.
• Without individual control, you hit the middle bar more often than the top bar. Kerouac and Burroughs were both smashing writers…but I have to say that Hippos doesn’t equal Kerouac’s solo work – at least from what I’ve read. (And I’ve never read Burroughs’s solo work, so I can’t compare on his side of the equation.) Part of the quality-question is definitely that this was their first big finished project for both of them…so it’s a book by beginners overall.

I highly recommend at least one attempt at direct collaboration like Kerouac and Burroughs.

Right now, Jess and I have hit out stride writing together. We communicate early and often and follow all the notes from above. I highly recommend just getting an experience like this…even if it goes nowhere. Just try to make sure that you pair up with someone you have a good working relationship with — Jess and I worked on several plays together as designers and performers before jumping onto the paper together.

After a while of doing this writing gig, we’ll all have an opportunity to respond to agents and editors sounding off on the work, requesting that we adjust our stories. But it’s not as often that you’ll have an opportunity to meet up with a buddy and articulate what you’re trying to do while creating.

You just have to go into it with the knowledge that, if you fail miserably, you can at least blame it on the other guy. (Hi Jess!)

***Side note on Lucien Carr: He is the father of novelist Caleb Carr — the author of two of my own favorite books: The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness.***

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’!

Pace Yourself: Using Nora Roberts’ Insane Productivity to Inspire Your Own

Writing math is the only kind of math that I do. (I’m a writer, I do words. Numbers are another beast.) I’m constantly figuring and re-figuring how many words I need per day to complete my novel by X date. The date keeps moving because, inevitably, I’ll miss a day or three in my allotted schedule and have to adjust. And I ALWAYS feel like I’m going to slow.

Now, I know you’re not supposed to compare yourself to other writers, published or otherwise. Every writer has their own pace. Every writer has their own process. And one of the reasons I think writers read articles and books on writing (hello!) is to help refine their own process. At least, I hope that’s the case. It’s unhelpful to draw comparisons between two people’s situations. But it can lead to groundbreaking productivity if you find a nugget of advice that you can steal and apply to your own work. Like:

“Why, yes! I will write in the morning before everyone else in the family wakes up.”


“Why, yes! I will write in the evening after the kids are in bed.”

Either way, as long as you figure out your process, you scored. Right?

Sometimes, however, you come across a writer who is intimidating in their productivity. This writer will make other prolific writers feel like incompetent wannabes with no work ethic who’re sitting around, wearing tweed, sucking their thumbs and agonizing over why the muse doesn’t talk to them.

Nora Roberts is such a writer among writers.

She has over 200 books in print right now — with no backlog, according to her. She’s been writing since 1979, with her first published novel happening in 1981. So I did the math:

200 books/37 years (since it’s January, I just counted up to 2016 because she’s only had a couple weeks this year…) = 5.4 books a year.

Assuming each book is around 100K (the average-ish American novel), that means she has written at a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) pace — 1,667 words per month — every month for three decades.

Suck it, Stephen King! — Who, I’m guessing, blasted out a short story while I was typing this sentence.

Being the competitive type, here is an illustration of my initial thought upon doing this math:


But no. It’s a vicious lie I’m telling myself right there. I’m not that fast. I believe that I can hit a Chuck Wendig/Stephen King type pace with some effort. (And, let’s be real, that’s some kind of pipe dream.) But Nora Roberts will forever kick my ass at churning out words. However, there are some things to learn from such numbers:
1. To produce words, you must show up and do the work — which means exactly what it means. This shows up in EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF ADVICE TO WRITERS. There’s a reason for this. Words do not magically show up on the screen and tell stories. Writers have to do that. Nora Roberts writes everyday. [website]

2. Those numbers are produced by a human — which means I (and you) can produce something. Maybe not the million-and-a-half novels that Roberts will complete by the time she goes to work at the great typewriter in the sky in a hundred years or so, but words can be put on paper. Lots of them. Probably even more than I think I can do.

3. Be bold and interested in what you write. I’ve read a handful of Roberts’ novel in the past month or so. One of them was Origin in Death, which I found fascinating because Roberts took the ethics of cloning, mixed it with murder, and created an intricate story that touches on a lot of current issues. The tangle she created is enough to drive several stories, if she was so inclined. If you want to produce more words, then pick subjects that fascinate you. You’ll want to get back to work because it’s interesting for you.

And don’t shy away from contemporary issues that inspire or anger you. If you want to write about politicians, or medical discoveries, or technology, then freakin’ do it — don’t think “Who am I to write/comment on these things?” — you’re a writer and a citizen of the human race, and if it moves you, if you have something to say: SAY IT.

4. Be consistent. And be patient. Roberts has been writing (based on her interviews and her author bio) for 37 years and a couple weeks. That’s an entire lifetime for some people. (i.e. Me.) Producing things takes the time it takes, but as writers, we need to put in that time.

In the interest of productivity tips: as a writer, what do you do to keep yourself putting the words down? What’s the best tip you’ve heard for producing material? Are you intimidated by Nora Roberts-type numbers, or do you find it inspiring? Or both?