The Ups & Downs of “Spontaneous Prose”
I wrote a thing about writing. How meta.
As a writer, I try to put a lot of thought into what I say on the page. Hard to believe, I know. And yet, one method of writing that I think we all have some experience with is the “spontaneous prose” or “stream-of consciousness”. This process is one that foregoes editing or even forethought, instead encouraging one to write their thoughts as they have them, regardless of any sort of flow, leading inevitably to word-salad’s with a side of run-on sentences, not terribly unlike this one.
While I generally feel that this improvised writing style serves best as a way establish one’s own opinions to be tempered later, it’s always possible to see pieces of “spontaneous prose” offered up for scrutiny by outsiders. One such piece, which will serve as the crux of my argument, is the writings of Jack Kerouac.
In his book ‘On the Road’, there is a particularly improvised section that, I think, exemplifies the downsides of leaving improvised thoughts on the page.
“Now it’s jazz, the place is roaring, all beautiful girls in there, one mad brunette at the bar drunk with her boys. One strange chick I remember from somewhere, wearing a simple skirt with pockets, her hands in there, short haircut, slouched, talking to everybody. Up and down the stairs they come. The bartenders are the regular band of Jack, and the heavenly drummer who looks up in the sky with blue eyes, with a beard, is wailing beer-caps of bottles and jamming on the cash register and everything is going to the beat. It’s the beat generation, it’s beat, it’s the beat to keep, it’s the beat of the heart, it’s being beat and down in the world and like oldtime lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat.
The faces! There’s no face to compare with Jack Minger’s who’s up on the bandstand now with a colored trumpeter who outblows him wild and Dizzy but Jack’s face overlooking all the heads and smoke. He has a face that looks like everybody you’ve ever known and seen on the street in your generation; a sweet face. Hard to describe, sad eyes, cruel lips, expectant gleam, swaying to the beat, tall, majestical – waiting in front of the drugstore. A face like Hunke’s in New York (Hunke whom you’ll see on Times Square, somnolent and alert, sadsweet, dark, beat, just out of jail, martyred, tortured by sidewalks, starved for sex and companionship, open to anything, ready to introduce new worlds with a shrug). The colored big tenor with the big tone would like to be blowing Sunny Stitts clear out of Kansas City roadhouses, clear, heavy, somewhat dull and unmusical ideas which nevertheless never leave the music, always there, far out, the harmony too complicated for the motley bums (of music-understanding) in there.
The drummer is a sensational 12-year-old Negro boy who’s not allowed to drink but can play, tremendous, a little lithe childlike Miles Davis kid, like early Fats Navarro fans you used to see in Espan Harlem, hep, small – he thunders at the drums with a beat which is described to me by a near-standing connoisseur with beret as a “fabulous beat”. On piano is Blondey Bill, good enough to drive any group. Jack Minger blows out and over his head with these angels from Fillmore, I dig him – now it’s terrific. I just stand in the outside hall against the wall, no beer necessary, with collections of in-and-out listeners, with Verne, and now here returns Bob Berman (who is a colored kid from West Indies who barged into my party six months earlier high with Dean and the gang and I had a Chet Baker record on and we hoofed at each other in the room, tremendous, the perfect grace of his dancing, casual, like Joe Louis casually hoofing). He comes now in dancing like that, glad. Everybody looks everywhere, it’s a jazz-joint and beat generation madtrick, you see someone, “Hi,” then you look away elsewhere, for something someone else, it’s all insane, then you look back, you look away, around, everything is coming in from everywhere in the sound of the jazz. “Hi”, “Hey”. Bang, the little drummer takes a solo, reaching his young hands all over traps and kettles and cymbals and foot-peddle BOOM in a fantastic crash of sound – 12 years old – but what will happen?”
First and foremost, the excerpt strikes me as unfocused. Duh. This may seem like a trait to ubiquitous to the style to truly count as negative, but it’s my opinion that writing, even at its basest, should be about ideas. There should be a certain level of substance to everything, and I don’t get that here. The lack of focus is a detriment because it leaves me unsure what to think. The piece is describing a setting, but it isn’t really saying anything of substance about it.
One may argue that the chaotic, “stop-start” flow of the piece helps set the tone and mood of the setting. This is true, I suppose, but it’s my experience that tone and mood are ultimately fleeting concepts and too broad to hold together a piece like this. Without a binding theme or motif (or at least the suggestion of one) the piece comes off like someone building up to a point, but ultimately forgetting what it is they want to convey.
Another problem caused by the format is the sense of pretension. Because Kerouac doesn’t really sound like he knows what he’s talking about, any meaning he’s trying to get across instead feels like an imitation of something substantial.
Even in his own list of rules regarding Spontaneous Prose, Kerouac’s style comes off as too improvised to get across anything actually helpful.
This is similar to the issue I tend to have with Still Image Art. Whatever it’s trying to say is so up to interpretation that, without context, it feels almost like the artist just threw something together for the sake of itself. The key difference here being that at least in a sculpture or painting I can appreciate how it looks (despite any vanity that may have went into it). The structure of this particular piece just makes it unappealing to my tastes.
While it may seem pompous of me to bash the work of such a prolific and appreciated write, I simply see this as a way to demonstrate the importance of editing and forethought in storytelling. To throw words on a paper may be great for setting a tone and image, but these elements are just only of the trade. If not used to their full effect (with focus and a clear intent), these tools will just be left to sit and rust.
But that’s just me.