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The approval of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Sly Stone

December 7, 2010

Before two giants of 20th Century American literature were published, when both were unknown, discouraged and broke, Allen Ginsberg wrote a letter to Jack Kerouac telling him, “DON’T FLIP, take care of yourself now, rest from fatigue and figure what next to do.  This is my poor advice.”

Writers, as a general rule, are needy folk.  We write because we’ve got a story to tell—a story that only you, me, he or she could tell—maybe we made it up, maybe it’s the real deal, our own Oliver Twisty tale—but it must be told and we must find an audience—because nobody writes for themselves alone.

Kerouac, despairing of rejections, writing to Ginsberg, said, “My heart bleeds every time I look at On the Road.”

Writers look for acceptance, for kudos, for an admiring comment, a pat on the back, convincing evidence that thought has been provoked, emotion stirred, laughter caused, knowledge conveyed or maybe simply that entertainment has occurred.  As Sly Stone said at Woodstock, we’re looking for approval—some sort of sign from our neighbors that we’re not crazy, it’s all worth it—that we’re good, that I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay.

Back before Facebook and its weird, gentle art of statusing and liking (where friends can instantly and supportively swarm upon the mention of something good or bad)—back before email, back before personal computers—there were letters—actual typed or handwritten slow-speed analog correspondences, where this sort of friendly encouragement thing took place.  In the recently released The Letters of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg (Viking, 2010), I’m astounded with the vulnerability of these two writers, their fragility and hopeful bravado in the face of rejection after rejection.

Kerouac tells Ginsberg, “I know and realize that there are other writers in this country who think a lot of themselves and exchange letters like this predicting their great future fame—but I’m not whistling in no dark…nor am I fooled by the great silence that always falls when your name is mentioned among poets and writers…besides why should we care, if we’re whistling in the dark and we’re not “great” writers, then it will only mean that tastes and standards will change into Apocalypse which is our message anyway.”

These were two twenty-somethings, cocksure, convinced of their talent, but dependent on each other, shaken by the market’s silence.

Kerouac writes, “Paste this in your hat—Ginsberg is the great poet of the Jews of the 20th century in America.”

Ginsberg replies, “I believe with On the Road…you really have hit a whole lode of originality of method of writing prose—method incidentally though like Joyce is your own origin and make and style…the structure of reality and myth—shuttling back and forth, is a stroke of genius…the book is a real triumph for you, a Beethovian-Melvillian triumph.”

Thing is, they were both right.

All our local writing groups, our MFA alumni networks, our Facebooking and email correspondences between writerly friends, serves this purpose—keeps us going, nurtures and sustains us scribblers.

Here’s where I let it hang out: recently, after being form-letter rejected by Jack Kerouac’s literary agent, the venerable Sterling Lord Literistic, (I probably didn’t have a shot anyway),  I, like Samuel Beckett, feel that I can’t go on, but I will go on, I will fail, fail again, then fail better.  Lots of rejections. And then I’ll be fine. It’ll be okay.  I will get approval.  Or maybe I’m whistlin’ in the dark.

Sly Stone knows about that.

Put yo’ hands together.

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From → Fiction, Kerouac

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