The biggest publishing sensation during my younger years was On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He had taken a long roll of paper, aligned the top edge of the roll on the platen of his typewriter and never stopped typing until he had filled the roll from top to bottom. A publisher decided to take a chance on this strange manuscript and it became a runaway best seller.
I read the book – even then I wasn’t sure why – perhaps I needed to read it to realize that this wasn’t a road I wanted to follow. Nevertheless, I bought into the mythology that this was a genuinely spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness novel produced by the drug addled brain of Jack Kerouac.
I should have known better. Kerouac broke many rules of writing, but he did it knowingly – he knew words and how to use them. He was not some ignorant dropout who didn’t know a gerund from a geranium. He had studied journalism at Columbia University and had been writing for many years before he produced On the Road.
Kerouac’s full name was Jean-Louis Kérouac, born in Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents. His mother tongue was French; in his youth he was known as Ti-Jean (little John). He wrote the first draft of On the Road in French, then several drafts in English before his manic stint at the typewriter.
Writing is work, even for the father of the beat generation. Nevertheless, there is still a naive belief among many people that “I could write a book just as good as those big name writers if only my time wasn’t all taken up with making a living.” Christians seem to be especially susceptible to such romantic notions: “The Spirit has inspired me to write this and I know it will touch the hearts of thousands of readers if I can just get somebody to publish it without messing it up by editing.”
I think of writing as being much like making a garden. The seeds are the inspiration. You need to plant them in an orderly fashion, to provide space for each growing plant to develop. Then, if you ever want a harvest, you have to be in earnest about weeding. Get those weeds out of there, don’t let them suck all the life out of your story!
Sometimes the weeds look so beautiful; they have such delightful flowers. But if left to grow, they overshadow the garden plants. Their roots go down deep and suck up the moisture and nutrients. They spread their seeds over the garden and multiply until you can hardly see the rows that you planted and the product of your garden is hardly worth the effort you put into it.
You have to have inspiration to start with – the seeds. However, as with a garden, the biggest part of the work of writing comes in the weeding – the editing. A famous Canadian author gave the following advice to his son when he began to follow in his father’s footsteps: “Revise and revise and revise, until your writing is as good as you can possibly make it – then revise once more.”
“When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.”—Enrique Jardiel Poncela