I’ve been in San Francisco with my family this weekend. Needless to say we’re having a great time.
While San Francisco is a relatively young city, it has a storied history regarding the arts. Notably for writers, it was the home of the literary movement known as the Beat Generation in the 1950s.
The Beats included writers like poets William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and novelists Jack Keruoac and Neal Cassady. Their motto was liberty of expression and their style has influenced writers for the last 60 years.
In the early days of the Beat movement, one of its founding members, Lucien Carr, wrote a manifesto for the Beat Generation called “The New Vision,” which would define the movement. Their style hinged on three things, as explicated by Carr:
1. “Naked self-expression is the seed of creativity.”
The writing of the Beats is raw and full of meanderings and whimsy. The Beats often wrote whatever they thought in a rapid, manic stream of consciousness. They valued fresh perspectives and felt the careful structuring of earlier writing was an aberration of the truth. For example, here’s a quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road:
But then they danced down the street like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
Notice his long sentences full of exuberant repetition and freedom from the restraint of convention.
2. “The artist’s consciousness is expanded by derangement of the senses.”
Drug use was rampant among the writers in the Beat Generation as a way to to find unique perspectives.
While I would never suggest taking drugs, which I think end up stealing more creativity than they give—many of the Beats died very young—it’s important for writers to find new ways to view reality.
Every great movement of artists have tried to find new ways to look at the world. Three things that help me to see the world in new ways are travel, relationships with people who are different from me, and isolation.
3. “Art eludes conventional morality.”
Believe it or not, before the Beat Generation, published works were censored by the government. Profanity was edited out and scenes with explicitly sexual content were redacted.
The Beats catalyzed the change in censorship laws in the late 1950s. So when you read 50 Shades of Grey, you should thank the Beat Generation.
What the Beat Generation reminds us is that we serve our stories, not morality. It’s important for writers to be willing to break the rules of morality in our art. After all we have to lie to our characters, break their hearts, and even—gasp!—kill them off from time to time. You have to have a firm stomach for this kind of work.
That being said, Robert McKee points out that morality is essential to storytelling. We still always root for the good guys and want the bad guys to be punished. If you want to tell a good story, be willing to step over the bounds of morality, but ignore it at your peril.
Do you like the writers from the Beat Generation? What do you like about their writing?
Write like a member of the Beat Generation.
Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to comment on a few practices by other writers.