Portrait of Jack Kerouac


Kerouac's Spontaneous Prose



Why Kerouac?

My theory of spontaneous composing was first inspired by Jack Kerouac, so I think it only fitting to begin by answering the question, why Kerouac? I found my love of English, and consequently rhetoric and composition, through Kerouac’s writing—a point that may seem ironic considering that I’m a Chicana feminist committed to changing the social and ideological structures that foster inequality. While I’ll be the first to point out—and critique!—Kerouac’s sexist tendencies and the racist overtones of his characters, I’ll also willingly defend his literary contributions by explaining why it was him who gave me the appreciation for the English language I have today. What I found in Kerouac was a new way of seeing the world—a new way of appreciating space and place and geographic location and people’s everyday interactions in these locations—as well as a new way of writing about it. Kerouac’s style was so wholly unlike anything I’d read before, and it challenged everything I’d learned about what makes for “good” literature. In short, I saw Kerouac’s work as writing without restraint, without pretense, without convention. Kerouac calls this way of writing spontaneous prose, and I propose to rearticulate this method of composing as an alternative to the traditional essayist literacies that have long been the preoccupation of process pedagogies.

A Primer on Kerouac’s Spontaneous Method

Context: In 1953, at the request of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac attempted to explain how he managed to write The Subterraneans in a mere three days (Charters, 1992, p. 481). The resulting explanation, which Kerouac titled “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” was later published in Black Mountain Review in 1957, and it captures—in all of two concise pages—his personal manifesto for writing. Brevity aside, Kerouac’s “Essentials” includes rich descriptions of his spontaneous method.

According to “Essentials,” there are a series of tropes central to this form of writing:

Kerouac’s spontaneous method seems to undermine the proven-effective practices of process pedagogy. It discourages revision, calls for writing that is “scatological” and “uninterrupted” in thought, chastises grammatical correctness, and encourages writerly flexibility (Kerouac, 1957, p. 485). The subject matter is determined by the writer and comes from what the writer knows, from her own experience. Furthermore, Kerouac’s method challenges dominate literacy practices by arguing that writers should remain unfettered by stylistic choices, writing conventions, and forms and instead should enter a “semi-trance” state wherein they can express their ideas freely, without restraint.

Such a rogue description of writing might seem to have no place in first-year writing courses, where students often learn the conventions of academic discourse, a discourse that Marcia Farr and Gloria Nardini (1996) have noted is dubiously associated with essayist literacy. As many teachers of freshman composition would attest, we have a difficult enough time helping our students to organize their thoughts in a unified whole—how could we possibly encourage them to adopt a method that defies our field’s best practices?