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🤺 Word Sketching

Michael Dean
Michael Dean
5 min read

Jack Kerouac wasn't a painter, but a writer that "sketched" with words. He'd conjure up specific memories from his experiences, and then madly jot out the details of images.

At the back of a sweaty crowded bus on the way home from science camp, Lisa was doing things to Nelson that the other 5th grades couldn't imagine. No one could confirm, but strange rumors circulated until I got dropped off at the bottom of a hill in front of Carrie's house. The hill was steep. Too steep even for Big Yellow: the thirty-foot mechanical beast, operated by Mike, a death-metal guitarist, who would chaperone kids around town and get $50-an-envelope around Christmas time. My house was at the top. Each day I hiked up with Catherine (now a Joyce scholar) and James. Each kid, weighed down by a textbook sack with back straps, got burning calves and a half-pint of life experience. The street was lined with camcorder-wind and Gingko trees. I didn't know my childhood street hosted a rare Australian breed until Ms. Oaker moaned at a leaf I brought in for show and tell.

These are a bunch of random but related scenes from my childhood. There's something neat about tapping into your own memory for inspiration. All the material is there. In the attempt to wrangle it into a puddle of sentences, it forces you to invent specific language to convey it. This is what I imagine Kerouac's sketching to be.

 First off, it's organic.
No maintenance.
No overhead.
No systems.
No Evernote.
 It's automatic.

Futurists dream of AI-powered note-taking systems,
but we forget about the power of our subconscious.

Fishing for memories is something anyone can do.
But that doesn't mean it's easy.

You're ability to cast into the well of past experience, and see it lucidly through your mind's eye, is a muscle.

                                              You have to practice. 

In architect speak, this is called "eidetic imagination." I first heard the term from Professor Friedman's book:

"Creations in Space: A Course in the Fundamentals of Architecture."
( An architecture degree in itself )

The cover of the book shows a levitating astronaut demon.
It was a pun on "space," (deep space vs. plastic architectural space.)

But it was also,
Quite literally,
A person,
Floating off the ground,
With their head in another dimension.
(A fun place to write from)

"Eidetic imagination" is the ability to see something clearly in your mind, eyes open or closed, without effort, as if it were obviously right in front of you.

Picture architecture freshman blind-folded for hours, rotating cubes in their head, with trainers to make sure they don't gravy-fry their brain.

( This is a fake scene,
but a real exercise, from
Franz Bardon's "Initiation Into Hermetics." )

With some practice, it enables a kind of biological virtual reality (fancy shit). A baby psychedelic trip without the seven hour odyssey (too scared to take LSD to be honest). A direct-link to the unconscious. "Dreams on-demand." I won't pretend I have any of these superpowers (yet). While architects can visualize, they are also slaves to rationality and abstraction.

My default mode of thinking isn't far from a librarian or a nuclear scientist.

Father's an MIT engineer,
Mother's an interface developer for war planes,
and I don't fall far from the tree.

But, in the rare moments that I can "turn off," I surprise myself. It's something I should do more often, and something I should ALWAYS do when I generate writing from scratch (editing is a different game).

Basically, when I write, I want to feel like I'm

a few thousand feet in the air,
finger punching plastic keys as a way to save my life.
It should feel dangerous.
My eyes should roll into the back of my head,
blind to Notion and Meat World,
but in awe
at some lucid image,
some dream,
where yellow snakes circle Squirrel in boxing gloves
waiting to take a first crack
as Helen gasps in horror
but since I can type with eyes closed
I transcribe scenes from inter-dimensional cable.

When I write from Calendar-Mind, my lens is tuned to the question "what idea do I want to communicate?" But when I write from the imagination, and flip-off my language-dominated impulses, an oscillating tide of images comes in and out and in and out of consciousness, ramming the shore like waves. Your words are like washed-up shells. It's not the wave itself, but a remnant of it's force.

When I write, I want to a foster a kind of "parallel processing" (sorry for nerd-talk) between:

  • vivid scenes
  • sentence generation.

It's hard. I don't know if I can nail it yet. But maybe I will with practice. I hope to come up with something weirdly original. I'm almost embarrassed to reflect on my own writing ability in public. I never know where I stand.

There's a perpetual feeling: a pull between,
"I'm onto something," and "This is drivel."

Maybe voice is something that needs to slide out your esophagus as you dangle upside down from the ceiling.


Believe it or not, this is how John Lennon wanted to record vocals for "Tomorrow Never Knows," a song that gives me instant chills. In the days before digitally-enabled "auto-pan," Lennon told his engineers that he wanted to sound like he was being hung from the ceiling and swung around the microphone, so his voice could rotate around your head. Historian debate on whether this is the moment the Beatles were re-invented.

Away with digital dungeons,
Away with holding bookmarks hostage,
Away with mowing fields and trimming notes,
Away with librarians and nuclear scientists,
Away with Sunday house-keeping,
Away with tinkering,
Away with dissecting frogs,
Away with the spirit that sets off universe-gobbling blackholes in Vonnegut-land.

I opened my eyes and found myself on an Amtrak heading upstate. I needed a day in the woods, away from dual monitors, away from Internet culture, away from dog walks through Queens. Solitude. But laptop in lap, I looked down and saw an essay called "Word Sketching." Did I really publish this garbage? I look up, and sitting across from me is Jaaaack Kerouac himself. A drunk phantom smoking cut-up pages of Virginia Woolf novels through a chrome pipe. Like a desperate kid running into Edgardo Alfonzo at a Friscan Hotel, I asked for his autograph:

"Can I interview you for my website mister?"

He started cracking up, and dribbled marbles from his mouth like a never-ending Tweet thread. Spheres spilled over the train-floor and everybody grilled me. When the conductor came over, Jack melted into the seat and left a smell of burnt keratin. My laptop got confiscated, I blinked into a court room, and found myself on trial for illegal writing. It was being live-streamed on Facebook (my first post since 2009), and everyone I knew had something to say in the chat.

This is Jack's hysterical way of saying never to write about writing. Great advice



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