NEW YORK, March 28, 2013 - Jack Kerouac told people that he wrote On the Road in three weeks. Never mind Truman Capote’s dig: “That’s not writing; it’s typing.”
Is it possible to write a truly good or great novel in that period of time, in one non-stop flourish of heat and inspiration?
There is a catch to Kerouac’s claim: He spent seven years on the road before he wrote On the Road, so all the material he included in the book was already distilled and waiting to pop.
I could argue both sides. On the one hand, a novel needs to be revised and polished a thousand times before it can be declared done. The other argument is that the first bloom, the first rush of excitement, tells the real story. Writing a novel is like being in love. Enjoy the romance and don’t ask too many questions.
Love happens and novels happen by the same inexplicable combustion.
As a horseplayer will tell you, your first choice, follow your first instinct (there is no second instinct) is the most reliable, and when you start second-guessing yourself, you ruin the honest moment that came in a flash, a moment that will never come round again.
Kerouac chose his speedwriting method to attain spontaneous prose. He wanted to match the improvisational rhythm of jazz and bebop.
Conventional critics dismissed Kerouac and his fellow Beats, but today On the Road is deemed a classic.
Back in the mid-1800s in Russia, Fyodor Dostoyevsky had no choice but to write fast. Broke and desperate, he had 26 days to produce a completed novel. If he failed, the earnings from all his works over the next decade would revert to an exploitative publisher, Stellovsky, who insisted that the work be done by November 1, 1866, and not a moment past midnight.
Dostoyevsky met the deadline by dictating his prose to a stenographer, whom he later married, but when he presented the work at the publisher’s office, the publisher was conveniently not in. Dostoyevsky then rushed to a police station to have his manuscript certified in the nick of time. He called it Roulettenburg. We know it today as The Gambler.
This is now a minor classic. I This writer, Dostoyevsky, had no qualms about degrading himself, and when he wrote about the harrowing days and nights at the roulette wheel in the flesh pots of Europe, he knew what he was talking about. This greatest of Russian writers, along with Tolstoy, was a gambling addict, prone to bad luck. That is partly why he’d been in debt in the first place.
The novel is largely autobiographical. Dostoyevsky had this novel in mind years before he found himself in desperate straits. Though the writing, the sprouting, took three weeks, there were years of seeding and planting. So we cannot say the writing was fast, only the typing.
The Gambler illustrates that really great novels proceed liberated and unafraid. They tell it uninhibited, blemished, warts and all. Even the hero can be as flawed as any villain. There are sections in the book that make the reader cringe, both for the blunt honesty of the hero and for the choppy, uneven prose. We can tell that it was rushed. But we are hooked because it is so honest and unvarnished.
Or as Hemingway said of Dostoyevsky in general, “How can a man write so poorly and still make you feel so deeply?”
Readers who follow these pages will recall that I confessed to having ditched a novel that wasn’t working. But what I didn’t say, for fear of the kibosh, was that the very next day I picked myself up and started all over again. I started a new novel. I finished it in six weeks. I sent it off to the publisher (typos and all) before I could change my mind.
I knew that if I let it sit I would re-work it to perfection. No, I would rather it be imperfect – imperfect but true.
But did I really write it in six weeks? Let’s say I typed it in six weeks and started on it at the moment of a relentless brainstorm. But to get there, it took years of gathering material, consciously and subconsciously – material that was already percolating and seething in my mind for years, even decades. Then the right moment came for it to explode onto the page. I will only say it too is about a hero obsessed by an addiction.
On average I spend two years on a novel. Indecent Proposal took three years. By far my shortest work, the memoir Escape from Mount Moriah, took 20 years.
This new one just burst. Is it good, bad, great? Usually it takes generations to find out.
My enemies will surely be waiting for the result. But we also have friends.
Jack Engelhard, a novelist for such moral dilemma bestsellers as The Bathsheba Deadline, The Girls of Cincinnati, and the classic Indecent Proposal, his memoir Escape From Mount Moriah, and Slot Attendant – A Novel About A Novelist, Engelhard’s partly autobiographical expose about the trials of making it as a writer, brings his words to the Communities page covering all topics, with special focus on the absurdity of human behavior and reaches around the globe.
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