For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn't find anything. Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus. No, I can't explain the title, either. Yes, it's an exorcism movie, Read more

The Great Rock and Roll Secret

Suppose the great rock single had flickered over the airways just once, on the night you had passed out in the back seat?  Probably not, but still...rock and roll has always had this sense of possibility.  --Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, page 93 I originally read the above quote in the 1980s, when the first edition of Read more

Review: The Making of Day of the Dead

When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero's third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it's still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night Read more

The Manic Pixie Pout-Pout

Since I now have another two-year-old, I'm back to reading the simplest books to her at bedtime. Most of these books are innocuous, if occasionally incompetent (i.e., Big Snowman, Little Snowman, a Frozen tie-in book that probably takes longer to read than it did to write). A few are brilliant, such as Room on the Broom. But I'm here to talk Read more

The Omai Gods: the story behind the story

One of my favorite and oft-quoted bits of writerly advice comes from novelist/filmmaker Nicholas Meyer: "Art thrives on restriction." Meaning that if you don't have enough of something--usually money and/or time--you're forced to compensate by being creative. Here's a story that shows how that works, at least for me. I've never written steampunk. I honestly don't even know if it's a Read more

When to Plan and When to Pants

Posted on by Alex in Jack Kerouac, writers, writing, writing advice | 1 Comment

In the commentary on her video collection, Stevie Nicks says that the vocal on her hit “I Can’t Wait” is the first take, and that she knew she nailed it as soon as she finished. Bob Seger was called in at the last minute to record “Shakedown” when Glenn Frey got laryngitis; he also rewrote the lyrics, and got his only Number One hit out of it. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in essentially one long session, on a roll of paper so he wouldn’t have to stop and change sheets, with no punctuation or paragraph breaks.

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What got me thinking about these three instances is a comment by British author DG Walker on her Twitter feed that said, “Planning is essential to the success of any undertaking and writing is no different.” Because I don’t neccesarily believe that.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying you should never plan. If you’re a professional (or aspire to be), you have to be able to impose structure on your creativity. But writers use the term “pantsing,” as in “by the seat of your pants,” to describe writing without an outline, and with no predetermined goal or end. It’s something that, usually, can only be done with manuscripts that aren’t contracted for, deadlined or otherwise due in a set amount of time, situations in which you pretty much have to plan. After all, pantsing can lead you far astray from what ultimately becomes your story, and revisions can be a madhouse of slicing and dicing. But it also leads you to some of your best ideas.

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There’s another element involved that isn’t mentioned in these examples, although it should be self-evident in the first two. At the time they recorded their songs, both Stevie Nicks and Bob Seger were long-time, successful musicians and songwriters. They had spent years honing the skills that brought them success and critical acclaim. And although he’d had no commercial success, Kerouac, at the time he wrote On the Road, had been working diligently to develop a unique narrative voice, something that had never existed before in American literature.

What does that mean for the rest of us, then?

When I teach writing seminars or classes, I use this example: a world-class athlete practices every day, so that s/he will be ready for the Big Game, which may only come once a year.  Similarly, a writer should write every day, so that s/he is ready for the Big Idea. A lot of that writing will be pantsing, chasing an idea that may or may not go anywhere. But that time is not wasted, because the writer is perfecting the technical skills and critical judgment that only come from practice.

Stevie Nicks could nail that song in one take because she’d been singing for years. Bob Seger could step in at the last minute, rewrite and record a song that became his only number-one hit, because he’d been a singer and songwriter for over a decade prior to that. Jack Kerouac had been practicing a new form of writing, a prose version of what was happening in jazz music, for years prior to writing On the Road.  All of these people, and pretty much every successful artist in any field, spends a lot of time pursuing ideas that, in themselves, go nowhere.  But they lead to other ideas that do.

Planning is important: writing every day, having a good physical space in which to write, and so forth. When you have a deadline, you may have to plan how many words or pages you need to finish a day in order to make it. But never abandon the luxury of unplanned creativity, of literally chasing the dream to see where it goes.

Or, to quote Stevie Nicks, “I sang it only once, and have never sung it since in the studio. Some vocals are magic and simply not able to beat. So I let go of it, as new to me as it was; but you know, now when I hear it on the radio, this incredible feeling comes over me, like something really incredible is about to happen.”

And you don’t want to deny yourself that sort of feeling.

The wacky comradeship of the Beats

Posted on by Alex in Jack Kerouac, writers, writing, writing advice | 1 Comment

“New York gets god-awful cold in the winter but there’s a feeling of wacky comradeship somewhere in some streets.”–Jack Kerouac

I love reading about the Beat Generation. This is not the same, I hasten to add, as actually reading the work of the Beats, which can be hard going for someone used to more traditional forms of writing. But the idea of them–that there was once this group of friends who, through their individual and collected works, managed to change the literary world, and maybe the actual world–fascinates me. I’ve just finished Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, and have begun The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation. And later this year, the long-awaited film adaptation of the definitive Beat novel, On the Road, comes out.

So what appeals to me about these men and women who wrote like “slob[s] running a temperature,” according to the Hudson Review? Why do I envy a group Charles Poore in the New York Times referred to as “a sideshow of freaks”?

Clockwise from left: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Lafcadio Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso in 1956.

Like most writers, I’m a loner.  I can’t tell whether it’s because of something in my personality or the world at large, but at this point it’s habitual.  I imagine most writers are like that, since writing by its nature is a lone, solitary activity. I don’t mean I’m antisocial, or at least I hope I’m not. I try to be accessible and friendly. But the things that drive me, that are important to me and that guide my thinking…those things I keep to myself, for a simple and ironic reason: they’re almost impossible to convey in words.

The original group at the core of the Beats found a way around that, though. They formed a network of friendships and other relationships, with poet Allen Ginsberg at the center of the web. They shared living quarters, adventures, and romantic partners, all with a raw-nerved intensity. Sure, I recognize that youth was a big part of it, as was the particular historical moment and heavy substance abuse. And there’s no avoiding the narcissistic selfishness that kept them from more traditional connections (the only thing worse than being the romantic partner of a Beat was being the child of one). But even with all that, I envy their sense that here were people who understood, who got both the joy of being a writer trying to do something significant, and the sheer tedium of it. They got it.

Don’t get me wrong, I have good friends who are also good writers. But we e-mail and post on Facebook, instead of sitting up all night in San Francisco coffee shops. We see each other at comfortable conventions, instead of flophouses or jails. Most of us are concerned with living healthy, so we don’t chain-smoke or do hard drugs. Many of us have partners, and children, that we treasure. We’re products of our era just as the Beats were of theirs. And perhaps if I were 29 instead of 49, these connections would have the same effect on me as those espresso arguments had on the original Beats.

But I’m not. I’m a middle-aged guy with two kids, a wife and a mortgage, trying to make it in a world where screaming has replaced talking. I don’t have the option of dropping out the way the Beats did, or of dictating my own terms. And even if I did, I’m not sure I would; a number of the Beats ended up tragically, the result of an inability to handle substances and/or success. Their moment was fleeting, even for them.

Still, once they were the network of the cool: Ginsberg to Kerouac to Cassady to Corso to Burroughs, and so on and so forth. People who understood what the others were experiencing, what the struggle to create something meaningful was like. People who got it, man.

The profit motive (or, the prophet motive)

Posted on by Alex in Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jack Kerouac, writers, writing | 13 Comments

Recently on my Facebook/Twitter feed I posted a bit of Roger Ebert’s review of the new Julia Roberts movie, Eat Pray Love: “[To like the movie] I guess you have to belong to the narcissistic subculture of Woo-Woo.” I quoted it because I found it funny, and should make clear right now that I have neither read nor seen the book/movie in question.
 
In his review Ebert also said, “She [author Elizabeth Gilbert, played by Roberts] funds her entire trip, including scenic accommodations, ashram, medicine man, guru, spa fees and wardrobe, on her advance to write this book.”  This got my attention, so I checked around.  Sure enought, the New York Times book review confirms it: “Her trip was financed by an advance on the book she already planned to write, and Eat, Pray, Love is the mixed result.”

Really? Gilbert gets an advance (significant enough to allow international travel, yet) to write a book about her spiritual quest prior to setting out on it? So before starting she knows that a) the quest isn’t really going to cost anything materially, and b) she’ll need to create a narrative of it compelling enough to justify the investment. Clearly she did the latter. But my question is, doesn’t the existence of the former invalidate the whole thing?

Consider another literary account of a real-life spiritual quest, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Its protagonist exists barely above the poverty line, and suffers numerous indignities (many of them self-induced) as a result. His quest has no real agenda, no goal, and his insights occur only at his lowest points. His conclusion is that to live in that society he has to abandon the very things that drove him to the quest in the first place–i.e., grow up. He then writes about it, and only then is he rewarded materially for it.

The obvious difference between the two is one of gender, but I don’t think that’s the crucial one. I think it’s more about the integrity of intent. I don’t believe you can embark on a spiritual quest intending to profit from it, at no substantial cost to yourself, and emerge with any meaningful insights. All great quests, from Siddhartha to Moses, from Ghandi to On the Road, begin from a level of desperation that goes much deeper than, as the Washington Post says in its book review, being “a plucky blond American woman in her thirties with no children and no major money worries” who “is going through a really bad divorce and subsequent stormy rebound love affair.”

Or, to put it more concisely, On the Road inspires people to emulate it. Eat Pray Love inspires a Julia Roberts movie.

To be fair, I’ve often been accused of cynicism when it comes to other people’s motives, particularly famous and/or successful people. So what do you readers think? Is this a valid point, or just sour grapes from a writer who hasn’t yet gotten a big enough advance to finance a fun week in Wisconsin Dells,* let alone an epic journey into the meaning of existence?

*(Okay, that’s an exaggeration for effect. My average advance would buy me quite the time in the Dells.)

The Holy Goof and my own Dean Moriarty(s)

Posted on by Alex in Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, writers, writing | 3 Comments


The Holy Goof by the late William Plummer is a biography of one of the greatest literary figures to never write anything substantial–his best-known work is a fragment of a letter. But Sherlock Holmes’ words to Watson might also describe Neal Cassady’s relationship to Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Allen Ginsberg (Howl), Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Jerry Garcia (leader of the Grateful Dead): “Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.”

Cassady was, in simplest terms, an amiable flake in the right place at the right time. He was a poor boy from Denver with a quick mind and a taste for the drug of the moment (marijuana in the 40s and 50s, LSD and benzedrine in the 60s). He is “Dean Moriarty” in On the Road, and the after-the-fact template (as Plummer puts it, “Kesey had dreamed Cassady first, had imagined him into being–with the usual distortions of dreamwork, of course”) for McMurphy, protagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He is the “secret hero” of the landmark poem Howl. Garcia is quoted as saying, “Until I met Neal, I was headed toward being a graphic artist…he helped us be the kind of band we are, a concert not a studio band.”

Here’s a film clip of Allen Ginsberg; Cassady shows up at the 3:15 point.

What Cassady had that these other, more accomplished men lacked was a sure sense of his own affect on people: a natural grace. Despite a taste for brutally rough sex, he never lacked for female company. He could talk himself out of most conflicts with authority (although not all: he spent two notable stretches in prison for drugs). He was vastly well-read and self-educated. In other words, he mirrored things that Kerouac, Kesey, Garcia and especially Ginsberg could never manage for themselves.

I wonder how common this is among writers, especially those who grew up in the pre-internet age (alienated kids now have social resources I never had). How many of us seek out and latch onto people who are what we wish we could be? Here, then, is the story of my two Neals.

As a teen, I was a total loser. Girls were as alien to me as anything George Lucas put in his cantina. But I became friends with Willie*, who had an awesome car, all the girls he wanted, was a basketball star and knew all the places underage kids could get beer. In short, for a teen nerd in the swamps of west Tennessee, he was the epitome of natural grace. He did his best to teach me about cool music (he was into the Bee Gees before Saturday Night Fever) and how to dress to impress the ladies. Needless to say, as adults we have nothing in common; in fact, when I saw him last year at my stepfather’s funeral (the first time in at least twenty years), he was kind of creepy and pathetic, still talking of nothing but his glory days as a teen.

In college, I became friends with Jack*, who was tall, handsome, played guitar and had a wicked sense of humor. Everything he did seemed to be effortless. He could talk to any girl, make jokes with any guy, and was never socially awkward or off-balance. Even when falling-down drunk, he was cool. He encouraged my first attempts at writing something more substantial than a newspaper story, and we made grand plans for prose/music endeavors. Unlike Willie, Jack was also a decent guy, which made it impossible to be jealous of the ease with which he passed through life. He contacted me a few years ago and he’s turned out to be a solid family man with a respectable career. That made me happy. But I suppose I’ll always feel like Millhouse to his Bart.

Because I never aspired to revolutionize literary form like Kerouac and Ginsberg, or effect social change like Kesey, I haven’t transposed my Cassadys into any of my writing. But reading about the original Cassady got me thinking about whether other writers of the pre-internet generation had similar experiences. Did we all have our Neal Cassadys? And was this an exclusively male phenomena?

Leave a comment relating your own Neal Cassady, and be entered for a chance to win both The Holy Goof and a signed copy of my book of your choice.

*Name changed for reasons that should be obvious by the end of the post.