Spontaneous Prose: What it Looks Like

There’s a list Kerouac jotted down that is often copied. Called “Belief &Technique for Modern Prose,” it is thirty pieces of advice for writers who want to write spontaneously and Beat-like.

A couple of my favorites tidbits:

#1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy (because I love the idea of writing for your own joy)


# 29. You’re a Genius all the time (which is just a nice thought, ya know?)

The items that concern me today are: #13 Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition and #15 Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog.

It’s hard to define these kinds of terms – what does Kerouac mean? How do you know if you’re grammatically inhibited? Does interior monolog mean no dialogue? How can any story be written in such a manner?

Mostly the answer to all of these questions is: write FAST. Don’t THINK. Kerouac wrote very quickly, inspiring the famous quote from Truman Capote regarding Kerouac’s writing style: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” And a big part of me sides with Capote. (Most of me, actually.)

That’s not to say that, as writers, we shouldn’t experiment.

Writing fast, keeping to internal thoughts, and removing English-teacher-inspired inhibitions has an interesting effect. There’s a blurring of lines. There’s an additional layering of meaning – because an adjective or an adverb can apply to multiple things. It reads more poetically, and has a lot in common with stream-of-conscience writing.

Here’s an example from Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, which I’m reading right now and, to me, comes across as the most free of Kerouac’s prose I’ve read yet (just be forewarned, this excerpt is a little long so you can get the feel of it):

Out of the bar were pouring interesting people, the night making a great impression on me, some kind of Truman-Capote-haired dark Marlon Brando with a beautiful thin birl or girl in boy slacks with stars in her eyes and hips that seemed so soft when she put her hands in her slacks I could see the change – and dark thin slackpant legs dropping down to little feet, and that face, and with them a guy with another beautiful doll, the guy’s name Rob and he’s some kind of adventurous Israeli soldier with a British accent whom I suppose you might find in some Riviera bar at 5 AM drinking everything in sight alphabetically with a bunch of interesting crazy international-set friends on a spree – Larry O’Hara introducing me to Roger Beloit (I did not believe that this young man with ordinary face in front of me was that great poet I’d revered in my youth, my youth, my youth, that is, 1948, I keep saying my youth) – ‘This is Roger Beloit? – I’m Bennett Fitzpatrick’ (Walt’s father) which brought a smile to Roger Beloit’s face – Adam Moorad by now having emerged from the night was also there and the night would open –

I never said it was easy to read. The whole book is like this. No commas = no breathing.

But let’s take a look at a couple of the effects….

Without the pesky commas, a line like “with stars in her eyes and hips that seemed so soft when she put her hands in her slacks I could see the change” gains multiple levels of meaning. Since the stars refer to her eyes and then syntactically continues on with no break to her hips, it reads like there are stars in her hips. That’s an interesting image.

By putting her hand in her slacks, Kerouac adds a sexual image with ‘change’…even though it also refers to coin change in her pocket.

And ‘night’ in the last sentence gets multiple uses as well. The reader hears “emerged from the night” “the night was also there” and “the night would open” all in one fragment – and the first two ‘nights’ are in the same position in the sentence, so you also get the longer image of “emerged from the night was also there” when it’s all smashed together…and it all refers to the character of Adam Moorad still.


Fun, huh?

I didn’t even go into Kerouac making up new words (‘birl’ for a girl who wears pants or ‘slackpant’ to describe the clothing).

Or his use of repetition of “my youth, my youth, my youth”…and then his flat out, kinda spaced-out “I keep saying my youth” as if the reader didn’t notice.

Thank God this is a rather simple boy-meets-girl-they-break-up story. Otherwise my head would be spinning more than it already is with this book.

Should you like to hear all of Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose” here ya go:

Jack Kerouac layering spontaneous composition The Subterraneans Writing Thoughts

jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

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