Jack Kerouac was a famous writer from 1950's, but he referred to his own practice as "sketching." Like a painter, he'd look around slowly to soak in and reflect on the details. As images and memories bubbled up, he'd scribble them into flowery, never-ending sentences.
When Kerouac writes, it feels like he has a direct vein into the subconscious, for better or worse. I admire his ability to access "the source," but he hated editing. A natural result of automatic writing is unpolished noise. His critics have said, "That's not writing, that's typing."
But, if you're patient, among the noise are holy, unbelievable sentences. I make a point to save these. This one is from Dharma Bums. Most of his books are "auto-fiction," meaning the characters and plots closely match his life experience. After three days of poetry readings, Buddhist rituals, and orgies in San Francisco, he heads north to a National Park and writes this on a hike:
"The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling."
Before I dissect this sentence and suck the magic out of it, I just want to say, damn. You can see and feel the uncanny nature of the woods. The images are specific, but open-ended. The phrase "long-dead relative" is like a fill-in-the-blank, charging the whole sentence with emotion.
Alright, brain time.. The sentence starts off with a simple, clear, “the woods look like…” Then he riffs on 11 different associations, and glues them together into one sentence. Below, I format this sentence like a poem so you can see the structure and rhythm. The associations are underlined, and the connectors are bolded. Two points to note before you read:
- Notice the rhythmic nature of his associations. Some are one word, some are 9-word phrases. He goes in and out. After he drops a long association, he always returns to a short one.
- Notice how he alters his connectors. It keeps you on your toes. [like, like, like, most of all like, of, and all, and, and..] If he used only commas, or repeated the same word, it would read like a boring list. By altering his connectors, there's always a sense of forward motion.
“The woods do that to you,
— they always look
— — familiar,
— — long lost,
— — — like the face of a long-dead relative,
— — — like an old dream,
— — — like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water,
— — — most of all like
— — — — golden eternities of
— — — — — past childhood
— — — — — or past manhood
– — — and all
— — — — the living
— — — — and the dying
— — — — and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago
and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.”
Kerouac's style is often referred to as "spontaneous prose," "stream of consciousness," and "automatic writing." But it's helpful to think of it as "prose-poetry." It strips away the line breaks of poetry, but then injects imagery, metaphor, and sound into prose, stretching the nature of what a sentence can be.
I'm struck by the complexity packed into one sentence. It's like a free-fall of visuals. It's a trip– after just one sentence, you feel like you've been somewhere. The trees transcend their bark, and become instruments to dip into the forgotten– the recent and ancient past. There's a visceral emotion here, and Kerouac aims at it from many directions to make sure you feel it too.
Kerouac's art breaks all the advice of the copywriters. He would likely get drunk and violent if you asked him to write short, clear sentences, that each convey one idea to the reader. I'm interested t0 find that middle ground. So many of my sensibilities are the reverse of Jack's. I love editing and re-writing. I believe structure and outlines are important, and that it's worth being understood. I live in the suburbs.
But I love a great Kerouac sentence.
To me, it's worth learning how to write and use them. Simple sentences are great. But once in a while, a meandering river in the middle of your essay can really ring the soul.
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