Friday, March 21, 2014

The Beats; or, Finding Our Own Rhythm

"Think of it like literary jazz," I offered, by way of explanation. Having turned in their Travels trip journals last week, our classroom discussions shifted from adrenaline junkies and ethnocentrism to the beat generation as we collectively cracked the cover of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

To say Kerouac's style is different from Steinbeck and Crichton is like saying the soundtrack for Frozen (Did you catch this tribal cover of Let it Go?) is a little different than the soundtrack for last year's controversial The Great Gatsby.  One has tight structure and a discernible melody...the other is something you can't quite pigeonhole but could, loosely, be called jazz.

"Does it have a plot?" was an early question.

"There's an awful lot of characters" was another concern.

"ish" and "yeah," was about the best I could do, because, honestly, if I showed up at my MFA workshop with this stuff I'd be crucified.  "Where's the structure?" B would say, and, "Flesh out those characters!"  It just simply wouldn't fly.

Kerouac got away with his free-form, willy-nilly account of life as a young vagrant partly because of of a set of ideas influenced the collective art of the period-- what we now call the beat movement.  The beats rejected the status quo and embraced experimentation.  Jazz thrived within the context and, a jazz-like syncopation seeped into works like On the Road.

Many students view the protagonist, Sal, a wannabe writer and Kerouac's alter-ego as a maleable hobo with no real ambition.

"He just runs with the wind," N said.  "What are his goals?"

Other students were concerned with the economics of the whole plan of traveling around the country meeting up with friends in various cities. I reminded them of an article I gave them around spring break, from National Geographic Traveler, forwarding the notion that being young and broke is the perfect time to travel.  Discussion then turned to couch surfing and Craigslist Joe.

But when conversation circled back to goals and aspirations, they still viewed the adventures as irresponsible and Sal a failure.

Then M pipes up.  "This guy is a writer, right? Well, writers need stuff to right about and it looks to me like he wrote about all these adventures and well, we're reading about them.  Fifty years later."

A thoughtful silence filled the room.  Yes, yes, success,  everyone seemed to realize, in unison.  There is value in the recorded experience.

And then I thought about my two semesters of MFA workshop, and of the conflicting advice:
"Don't begin with dialogue!" we heard in the fall.

Now it's spring, with a new leader at the helm and dialogue is fine.

""Don't tag dialogue with anything more descriptive than "he/she said"( ie: no one should "gush" or "explain."), a student parroted from a seminar.

"What? No!"  gushing and explaining is fine, according to B.

And you know what?  On some level, it's all nonsense.  If those things ever were rules, I shamelessly broke both in the opening line of this post. And Kerouac?  He doesn't have a discernible plot, structure, or fleshed out characters.  And it just doesn't matter. My students are forgiving of theses gaffes.  They are now just interested delving into the experiences of the beat generation.

As for me, I will continue, worship or not, to record my experiences in my way, too.  And perhaps, just perhaps, I'll encounter forgiving readers as well.

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