Today’s exhibit from the WD archives, typing which put me in the mood to write very stream-of-conscious and use lots of run on sentences, is by everyone’s favorite beatnik, Jack Kerouac, from the January 1962 issue of Writer’s Digest; so here it is, dig it man:
Are Writers Made or Born?
by Jack Kerouac
Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writer art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born. Let’s examine the word “genius.” It doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive “talent.” It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare. Nobody but Whitman could have conceived, originated and written Leaves of Grass; Whitman was born to write a Leaves of Grass and Melville was born to write a Moby Dick. “It ain’t whatcha do,” Sy Oliver and James Young said, “it’s the way atcha do it.” Five thousand writing class students who study “required reading” can put their hand to the legend of Faustus but only one Marlowe was born to do it the way he did.
I always get a laugh to hear Broadway wiseguys talk about “talent” and “genius,” but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter—in other words, a “Talent.” Or you’ll hear people say that so-and-so is a “major writer” because of his “large talent.” There can be no major writer without original genius. Artists of genius, like Jackson Pollock, have painted things that have never been seen before. Anybody who’s seen his immense Samapattis of color has no right to criticize his “crazy method” of splashing and throwing and dancing around.
Take the case of James Joyce: people said he “wasted” his “talent” on the stream of consciousness style, when in fact he was simply born to originate it. How would you like to spend your old age reading books about contemporary life written in the pre-Joycean style of, say, Ruskin, or William Dean Howells, or Taine? Some geniuses come with heavy feet and march solemnly forward like Dreiser, yet no one ever wrote about that America of his as well as he. Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber, but it’s that inescapable sorrowful depth that shines through—originality.
As Kerouac writes at the end:
“But it ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”