On Writing: Truman Capote V. Jack Kerouac
Ah, November: when fall changes to winter and families gather to glut themselves on buttery deliciousness. November also happens to be National Novel Writing Month. As I have in years past, I started a NaNoWriMo project and then couldn’t figure out what the hizzle to write. Okay, so I wanted to do a collection of short stories rather than a novel, because I figured I would have to have a less grand plan for them, but of course, a plan is still necessary for a short story. And for twelve short stories, well, one must have twelve plans.
Which begs the question, how good are these NaNoWriMo novels, anyway? This is not sour grapes, I still have hopes that I will finish my project on time. The question comes from my knowledge that the work I am turning out right now is far from my best. Then again, it is work. I know that the point of NaNoWriMo is to get people to (say it with me folks!) apply the ass to the chair, to actually write that novel they keep telling everyone they’re going to write that day. And for my own part, yes, I am actually churning out some work, and getting some great ideas while I’m at it. But in terms of quality? It’s not quite there. Basically, what we see on my NaNoWriMo screen is stream-of-consciousness that may or may not make sense to a reader.
Which brings to mind Jack Kerouac. Before you Kerouac fans get all defensive, I am not dissing the fella, nor am I saying that his writing was bad. What I am saying is, he famously wrote On the Road in, like, ten minutes (actually, it was three weeks — a shorter period of time than the month of November). As the story goes, Old Jackie sat at his typewriter, fingers bouncing all over the keys, pounding words onto a 120-ft scroll of paper as his wife wiped the profuse sweat from his face. On publication, he added paragraph breaks and margins, took out some sections and added others, but the point is after three weeks, homeboy had himself a novel. And it turned out to be a major novel.
While On the Road was a bestseller that some said revitalized the world of literature in the 1950’s, others were considerably less pleased with the work, and wholly unimpressed with the method of writing. I am thinking of Truman Capote here, that catty scribe, who, upon hearing about Kerouac’s three-week writing binge, famously said “That isn’t writing. That’s typing.” (A little disclaimer here, folks: everywhere I looked to get the exact quote, it was different. While nobody disputes that Capote did say this — it just sounds like the sort of thing he’d say, doesn’t it? — everybody who quotes him seems to be paraphrasing.)
What Capote seemed to be getting at with that little jibe was this: Anyone with a little time and a decent idea (and a wife who will change your shirt for you as you type) can write a book in three weeks. That doesn’t make it good. A writer takes time and consideration when putting word to paper, puts thought and care into the words they choose.
It’s hard to imagine that the NaNo people are super concerned with the quality of their participants’ writing so much as they are concerned with the fact of the writing. That is, they are trying to encourage people, all people, to think about words, to think about expressing themselves in words, to imagine a world of their own and assign it a reality on paper. And in that sense, they are saying to the whole world the same thing that Truman Capote said to Jack Kerouac: Anyone can do it if they sit down and try.
How good it is, then, is not the point. And that’s what I tell myself this month.