And I do write them. Hither and thither. Sometimes you just have to go with the way the words sound. That’s how I felt then and that’s how I feel now.
On my desktop I keep a list of Jack Kerouac’s thirty axioms for modern prose. They’re pretty good and I recommend you immediately go over here and study them. You’ll notice Number 13 suggests “Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition.” He doesn’t say we don’t need to understand grammar or syntax – but don’t let them get in your way. Try to get the picture clear in your mind and go straight for it. I keep Jack’s list at hand for inspiration and to remind myself that anytime I put words to paper (so to speak), I’m part of a long line of guys who struggled their whole lives to learn how to write out of the box, how to keep their idea line as free of crap as if Keith Jarrett (a piano player I like) was writing it.
The only difference is I’m a pig. It’s hard for me to tell where my inspiration leaves off and the crap begins. Jack’s axiom #1 is the whole key, for me anyway: “Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy.” And if I make myself laugh as I type, then I figure I’m heading in the right direction.
Those professors at San Jose State in 1959 wanted me to write clean, clear prose. Like this: A plus B = C. Start with your introductory paragraph (which itself has to start with a grabber sentence), add body, then concluding paragraph. All nice and neat and when you’re done your reader thinks, “Aha – I see. Cats eat rats! Very interesting.”
Sorry, Dr. Smith. I already heard all this already in high school. Next you’ll want me to turn in my outline.
The more they tried to whip me into shape (of a square) the more I wriggled and jiggled and wandered off in four directions. It became a game. I was sublimely confident in my ability. I was convinced my English Comp professor wouldn’t know good writing if Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti broke into the classroom with their guns leveled straight at him.
I knew exactly what I was doing. I just wasn’t very good at it. Needed more practice. Still do.
I always felt when they wrote ‘spelling’ in the margin they really meant “Why can’t you be more like a girl? They check their spelling! They’re nice! They smell good! No – you’re sloppy and improvisational and you should shave off that scruffy beard if you think you’re going to get a decent grade in here.
“And what’s this? Horrors! Slang! You’ve used slang in a college-level essay! And just look at this illogical and non-parallel series of clauses and phrases. How can anyone possibly understand this beatnik prose? Why don’t you write like Ernest Hemingway? Mr. Pig, you are MUCH TOO SELF-INDULGENT! You must write to communicate, not for your own private pleasure…Tsk tsk tsk..”
And on and on. Next I was accused of ‘rambling’. What’s wrong with ‘rambling’ anyway? I’ve spent my life rambling round this country, and I’ve met a lot of funny men. Some robbed me with a six gun, others with a fountain pen. Woody Guthrie said that. There! I used an eminent authority to emphasize my point. Are you happy now?
Whatever I was doing in college, I was not here to learn how to write a simple, clear, direct essay. That was for sissies. Sissies, drones, English professors, and other bores. Funny, in later life I have come to admire that approach. I usually write to capture a feeling or a moment of time, or possibly make you laugh if I can, but if someone is writing to communicate an idea, and I can actually understand what they are trying to say – I love it! That’s the whole idea.
Don’t know quite why I rambled down this path this morning. I really meant to tell you about my beatnik-lefty-socialist seventeen year old pal Bob Gill. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t write out your outline ahead of time. By now, you’d be up to the demonstration and kids getting washed down the stairs with fire hoses and it would be really exciting. Instead I’m still sitting up in my attic room in the boarding house writing a paper I have to turn in in the morning. Wonder what he’ll say this time! I know. “You use too many exclamation marks! This reads like a comic book!”