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.

Pros:
• 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.

Cons:
• 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.***