Ben Hecht’s Interview of Jack Kerouac

I seem to have talked a lot this week, so now I’m gonna let Kerouac talk, scabs and all.

This is the second portion of an interview held just before/immediately after the release of The Dharma Bums, which we’ve been talking about this week. In this interview Ben Hecht and Kerouac talk about Buddhism vs. Christianity, a brief mention of The Dharma Bums as the new book out, the “happiness of Negroes” (full disclosure: I have to say that I’m embarassed for both of them – white 1950s guys that they are, I cringed at the generalizations made), and world peace.

The interview is interesting both for the interviewee and the style of the interview. It’s not quite McCarthy-esque…but it certainly has the flavor of the time period….

Thursday Reviews!: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (A Mentor Review!)

The Dharma BumsThe Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I’d read this alone on a mountaintop, or while camping, or just out in nature somewhere I’d probably’ve given this four stars. The descriptions of nature, the out-and-out enthusiasm for the outdoors, and the romanticizing of living out of a backpack (which, for an indoor girl like me, is a hard sell) were the most engaging sections for me.

That and the descriptions of food were somehow entrancing. Who knew pork and beans could be so effective as a literary presentation? And I’m not being sarcastic either. After Kerouac describes the cold during the mountain climbs, or the extensive traveling without rest, the descriptions of food seem to rejuvenate the reader as well as the lead characters. It’s a strange thing and I can’t think of a book that comes close to describing food in such a satsifactory way. (Odd praise, I know, but it worked for me.)

Had the nature and backpacking and food been the center stage for this novel, it would’ve been just fine for me.

My issue comes with the pop-Buddhism. It really felt like Ray (the main character/Kerouac doppelganger) was an enthusiastic guy trying to understand something that he wasn’t quite getting. He knew the terminology, knew some Buddhist practices and tried to apply it in his life…but there’s a section where Japhy (the Ultimate Dharma Bum) calls him out and says that Ray is just putting everything into words. And that is exactly right — I practically cheered when I got to that point. Ray is just describing and describing being “enlightened” but he never actually is, and doesn’t see it, and it gets annoying.

Really, it’s Ray’s childlike enthusiasm and joie de vivre that make the pop-philosophy forgiveable.

Side note — I found it hilarious that Alvah Goldbook, Allen Ginsberg’s doppelganger, was the poet to protest the Buddhism the most. Funny, because Ginsberg was the most faithful of Buddhists after Kerouac introduced him to the religion…his funeral was in a Buddhist temple. There’s just no predicting….

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Haiku

Haiku is defined in Jack Myers’s The Portable Poetry Workshop as: “A Japanese lyric form composed of three lines totaling 17 syllables: 5, 7, 5 respectively.”
Well, if you ever want to understand the terminology of poetry, you can’t do much better than this book. If you want to know the definitions for anything from “enjambment” (“A line ending whose syntax carries over to the next line”) to homolochos (“A classic, stock physical-comedy character of the buffoon type”) Myers has the literary and poetical definitions for ya. But – and no offense to Mr. Myers, who is a former Texas Poet Laureate and two time NEA fellowship recipient – the definitions didn’t quite cover enough for me as I worked through one particular section in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.

In the scene, Ray is mountain climbing with his buddies Japhy and Morley. As they climb along they are inspired to compose haikus on the spot. Stuff like: “Talking about the literary life – the yellow aspens” – from Japhy. My first thought as I read was That’s terrible. And I’d tolerated plenty of sorta-Buddha babble from these guys up to that point.

Still, while I may have disliked “Rocks on the side of the cliff…why don’t they tumble down?” – from Ray – I appreciated Japhy’s explanation of what a haiku is: “A real haiku’s gotta be simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing.” That definition makes a heck of a lot more sense to me than a breakdown of syllables-per-line.

And the way the characters composed these haikus is very telling about the Beat generation of writers as well.

In his 1974 essay “On the Road: Notes on Artists and Poets 1950-1965” poet Robert Creely describes his experiences as a poet during the Beat time period and it’s surprising similar to Kerouac’s life experience: “I had gone through a usual education in the East, had witnessed in shock the terrifying conclusion of humans killing one another, had wobbled back to college, married (mistakenly) in the hope of securing myself emotionally, had wandered into the woods…and I was returned without relief again and again to the initial need: a means of making articulate the world in which I and all like me did truly live.

Being able to articulate the world sounds like a pretty tall order to me – but I think, as Japhy points out in his haiku definition, that articulation doesn’t need to be complicated. Haiku is not complicated. It’s as “plain as porridge” but it is articulate. It says a lot with very little.

Japhy quotes a haiku by Shiki: “The sparrow hops along the veranda with wet feet.” He goes on to explain why that’s a great haiku: “You see the wet footprints like a vision in your mind and yet inthose few words you also see all the rain that’s been falling that day and almost smell the pine needles.” What Japhy describes is the articulation of the haiku.

Turns out, this is one of my favorite scenes in The Dharma Bums, partly because it got me thinking about poetry, which I enjoy – dry terminology and all – and partly because of the statement it makes about the Beat writers. The scene functions articulately.

The Beats didn’t worry about haiku syllabics (Kerouac doesn’t even break the haikus into lines). These guys were just experiencing the world and playing with words at the same time. Creely says in his essay: “any form, any ordering of reality so implied, had somehow to come from the very condition of the experience demanding it.” The scene articulates the idea of spontaneous, experimental composition. The haiku form within the scene is Kerouac’s example.

It’s great, layered, which I dig.

Pop Buddhism

This weekend, I finished reading The Dharma Bums – the book that apparently started the Backpack Revolution.

First, My Problem:

As the title implies, there are a plethora of Eastern-religion references throughout Dharma Bums. My problem was, and remains, that I had the toughest time believing Ray Smith, the main character, really understood the tenets of Buddhism. Sure, he meditated. Sure, he could list the Four Noble Truths. Sure, he bought into the idea of Enlightenment.

But he seemed to use all these things as an excuse to sit on his butt and do nothing. It’s not an attractive characteristic.

He used Buddhism to excuse his life rather than to live his life – does that make sense? This kind of pop-philosophy annoys me.

Second, Pop-Philosophy is Exactly What I’m About to Do:

After all, Kerouac’s my mentor this month, right? Gotta learn from the man. So, without further ado, I give you:

The Three Temptations of the Buddha as They Relate to Writing

1. Desire: It’s actually referred to as ‘lust’ in the story…but I’m adjusting things to make my point.

What on earth can desire have to do with writing? Well, it speaks to motivation, as do the other two temptations that I’m gonna talk about. I don’t know about you guys, but every now and then J.K. Rowling’s paycheck pops into my head. (As do Stephen King’s , James Patterson’s, and Nora Roberts’s). This seems harmless on the surface – after all, my logical brain knows the odds of getting the dough these writers bring in is astronomically low.

But my family is a single income family – and that single income is a public school teacher. (I know it’s forboden to discuss money, politics, and religion…but apparently I don’t follow rules very well.)

My husband and I cut a deal, known in the writing-type world as the Dean Koontz Deal. Meaning: my husband will bring home the bacon for a few years while I focus exclusively on my writing. I noticed, at the beginning of the summer, that a certain desperation had crept into my writing. It made me sit down religiously. I wrote word after word after word (and don’t get me wrong, they were pretty good words, if I do say so myself). But I panicked that I wasn’t moving fast enough. I didn’t need to be a millionaire, but I needed to have some income. I really, really, really wanted this to work and I wanted it to work FAST.

That’s desire. Sure, an income would be nice. But that kind of pressure…that kind of Want, the kind that feels like Need, is very, very unpleasant to write with.

2. Fear: Pretty straightforward this one, isn’t it? My desire could certainly be construed as fear – how to feed the kids? How many cars does a family need? Think of everything I lose in this game!

Fear can certainly be used as a motivator – fear of missing a deadline, fear of not hitting a word count, fear of being stuck. I think, a lot of times, writers just write because they fear the silence of a blank page. What if I never write again? Must put down WORDS! Must EDIT NOW! Because if I stop writing for even a second it means I’m Not A Writer.

Then, what if what you put down isn’t good enough? That’s one that stops writers. It stops me often enough. I’m not even comparing myself to anyone. Speaking of comparing…

3. Others: You can’t do it for Them. You can’t do it for your writer’s group…can’t try to impress them. You can’t do it to impress your mom, or to show your high school ex-boyfriend how you’re better off without him. In other words: You can’t do it for other people – not to beat them down with your bad-ass-ness or to bask in the glow of their love.

This one hasn’t been as much of a problem for me…maybe because my mother has hated all of my stories (she’s one of those very specific like/dislike kinda readers) and I only ever had to do it because I enjoyed writing. Though, I won’t lie: I sure do look forward to praise.

Now, How to Avoid Temptation?: The Middle Road

The middle road for all writers, in my-own-self’s opinion, is that you should always write for your own enjoyment. Maybe this is desire, but I don’t think so. This is a concept that has to be internalized, and accepted whenever a writer is ready. It’s an easy thing to say: “Just write because you like to write and don’t think about all that other shit.” But harder to put into practice.

One thing I thought of to help internalize this idea is a play on the concept of the Under The Bed Book. The idea is that Bad Books go under the bed, never to see the light of day. These are the books you never show anyone, you accept the lesson and move on.

I’m gonna shift that around a little and say: Put a Good Book under your bed. Put away a book that you’re proud of. Put away a book you think could be saleable. Just let it go. You created it, now keep it for you. You keep the lessons learned, and you don’t have to hear anyone ever say a bad thing about that book, and you never have to care if you would’ve made millions on it.

“Oh, yeah, Jenny,” you say. “You putting your money where your mouth is?”

I am actually. I’m currently working on a project that I’m going to keep to myself. I’m working on it right along with a project that I’m going to let out when it’s ready. I’ve had to do this for myself, to give myself permission to not feel that crazed desperation looming over me. I had to remind myself to write for myself.

If you can do that without doing all the work of writing a not-to-be seen novel, kudos to you! Keep doing what you’re doing.

I’m still working on it.

Where to Put the Good Blonde?

In Good Blonde and Others, the opening selection is about Kerouac, hitchhiking back from Mexico, catching a ride in a brand-new Lincoln Mercury driven by a beautiful blonde in a bathing suit. Throughout the section, Kerouac wonders who on Earth would ever believe that he’s so lucky?

Apparently, he didn’t think anyone really would, or he thought the section too lengthy, or he thought some other kind of editorial thing about it…because it remains as a fragment. He mentions the blonde in the second chapter of The Dharma Bums (imagine my interest when it suddenly appeared as I was reading along), but she is a brief, flitting literary construction to get him from point A to point B:

“hitchhiking the rest of the way from Santa Barbara in one long zipping ride given me, as though anybody’ll believe this, by a beautiful darling young blonde in a snow-white strapless bathing suit and barefooted with a gold bracelet on her ankle, driving a next-year’s cinnamon-red Lincoln Mercury, who wanted Benzedrine so she could drive all the way to the City”

An almost-paragraph is all that’s left of some twenty odd pages of writing.

So, why not put in everything and make it a longer chapter?

This has something to do with the tone of the book The Dharma Bums. The main guy, Ray Smith (another Kerouac doppelganger), is all about enlightenment…and sex doesn’t enter into it. Now, I’m not psychic, but I bet Kerouac had that figured out. Rule of thumb: don’t put in lengthy sections that have nothing to do with your theme/point/story. Episodic as it is, The Dharma Bums, like On the Road, is a focused presentation of a period in Kerouac’s life – not everything is gonna make it in.

A lot of good writers do this: write way more than they would ever need. I read somewhere that Amy Tan wrote almost a thousand pages for The Joy Luck Club. The end product is around three hundred pages. That’s seven hundred pages of material that didn’t get in there. Same with Kerouac. “Good Blonde” is a twenty page episode cut down to about a paragraph.

How do you know what material is extraneous material? How do you know where to put the Good Blonde? Or do you even utilize your Good Blonde section at all?

A few things that I’ve thought of to help in the decision making process:

1. Finish your story…all thousands of pages of it…and take a real hard look to see what it’s really about. If it is about a mother’s love, do you really need the main character to be married five times and to focus so much on husband number three? Probably not. Stuff like that can be pared down. Throw it on a scrap pile to be cannibalized later into a short story or something.

2. Is the extra material all front-loaded? If it’s taking your forever to get to the real story – like a hundred pages or so – you may be doing what they call ‘a running start’. Most of the material you think of as character-building, or background, is extra. The Good Blonde portion of The Dharma Bums is up front. If Kerouac had spent twenty pages telling us about this unbelievably lucky pick-up he would have taken an extra twenty pages to get Ray (main character) and Japhy together – and that’s the central relationship in the story, so the Blonde is just a run-up. You can cut those. Scrap pile ’em.

3. Conversely, does the denouement of your story go on forever, like Lord of the Rings? Similar principles to #2 apply.

4. Can characters be combined? Do you really need enlightenment scenes with three different characters? Why not smush it all down to one scene and one character? If you find yourself repeating insights or details, remember: the reader will get it the first time! You’re not adding in new or essential information at that point and the scene, as well as the characters that go with it, can probably go.