The Beat Post

Jack Kerouac

Kerouac in a characteristic mood. Photo by Tom Palumbo.

We writers are hard on the people who love us and who make the mistake of trying to live with us.

We work all the time and when we are working we exist on some other plane, unreachable by phone or fax. Even when we aren’t technically working, we continue to inhabit the world we have created on paper. Because all art is some form of self-portrait, those we love inevitably find that the lives they thought were being privately lived are actually fodder for our imaginations and have turned up, sometimes with hardly a veneer of disguise, on our pages.

And that’s when things are going well.

When things aren’t going well—say, for instance, we spend a day (or several days or a month) staring at a blank screen, or we receive (another) rejection letter, or we make the mistake of doing the math and realizing that we earn about a penny an hour (if that)—well, then our loved ones have to scrape us off the floor, tell us that we are geniuses, that we are not wasting our time and that we will find a way to feed everyone in the house this month.

We respond to their kindness by making them swear that we are neither ego maniacs nor self-centered asses.

That they are able to swear to this without laughing or killing us is proof that they love us despite our flaws.

Of course, some writers are worse than others. Many authors, once they are making an actual living and can quit their other three jobs, get up and go to their office every day. They write for six hours and then go pick up their kids at school. They make dinner and, presumably, pay the mortgage.

But then there are the real offenders. The writers who don’t apologize for their distraction, or for their BP-oil-spill-sized egos. Or for the fact that they patently and proudly refuse to write anything remotely marketable or, in some cases, even readable.

To me, the most quintessential example of this kind of writer, at least of modern American authors, is Jack Kerouac, who famously typed On the Road on one long, homemade scroll. According to legend, he wrote non-stop for three weeks while living with his second wife, Joan Haverty, in Manhattan.

I can just picture the scene, can’t you? There he is, playing with his tracing paper, painstakingly cutting it and taping it back together like the world’s first scrapbooker, all while taking himself very seriously and refusing to take any pleasure from his crafty pursuit. Then, just when his poor wife thinks that maybe he is done with the insanity and they can go for a nice walk in the park, he sits himself in the corner at his typewriter, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, and starts a typing frenzy that, as far as she is concerned, may never end.

Imagine the smell that emanated from that corner of the apartment by the end of those three weeks. The ungodly mess of cigarette ash, butts, apple cores, coffee mugs, chicken bones, and dead skin cells that must have littered the floor around him. At least, that is what it would have looked like at the end of those three weeks if I had been his wife. Minus the chicken bones, of course, because I would not have cooked for him and I doubt seriously he would have managed it for himself.

But maybe Joan Haverty both cooked and cleaned. Maybe she reminded him go to the bathroom and maybe, if she was very skillful, managed to get him in and out of the shower once or twice during that time.

I like to think that she had an affair with the grocer or the mailman while he was lost in his self-imposed, self-consumed insanity, but then I’ve always been optimistic.

Regardless of how she got through those three weeks, by the end of it, she must have been breathing an enormous sigh of relief. No matter how bohemian she was, no matter how much she believed in her husband’s literary genius, as he finally sat up, rubbed his eyes, and said, “I’m finished,” I can’t believe that she thought anything other than, “Thank God, now maybe he can sell this damn thing and then we can move to a place with a cross breeze.”

But no. After that three week marathon, which itself came after years and years of planning and working, it took him another nine years to perfect his manuscript and finally sell it.

How much money Kerouac made from On the Road during his lifetime, I do not know. I do know that by the time it was finally published, Joan Haverty had wisely left him (while pregnant with his child, whom, incidentally, he refused to acknowledge as his until a paternity test proved it nine years later). When that damn scroll was sold in 2001 for almost 2.5 million dollars, his kid should have received every penny. Sadly, she was much like her father and had died five years previously.  His estate is still being contested. Such is life, I suppose.

To hear most people tell it, Jack Kerouac is a great American hero who wrote a beautiful book that is true art and that influenced literature forevermore. But if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city and a wife to raise an artist. The difference is that someday the child will grow up.

So I raise my coffee mug to Joan Haverty, of whose personality and hopes and dreams I know nothing because they were not the subject of Kerouac’s fascination.

And I raise it to anyone who has ever loved a writer.

Though, to be honest, I hope you have something stronger than coffee in your mug.

(This post was originally published on my first blog, Loose Leaf Writing, which has entered the retirement phase of its life cycle.)