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Maybe you can write a novel in 30 days, but should you?


One of the legends of modern American fiction is that of Jack Kerouac and the writing of his great novel, “On the Road.”

According to the legend, Kerouac loaded his Underwood typewriter one day in 1951 with a long scroll of teletype paper and, over the course of three weeks — with the aid of copious amounts of coffee, cigarettes and alcohol — merely “belched out” the book that many would later call the novel of a generation.

"On the Road" is a story about two young men traveling across America. It flows in Kerouac's trademark stream-of-consciousness form as a singular, chronological experience. The impression the legend gives is that this young man hit the road one day, drove from one coast to another, then burped out a book about it over the course of just a few weeks.

The lesser-known truth is that 10 years elapsed from the time Kerouac left his parents' house in Queens, N.Y., in 1947 until the book was published in 1957. So by the time it became required reading of the disaffected baby boomers in coffee houses from Greenwich Village to Haight-Ashbury who looked at Kerouac as the voice of their generation, few of them realized he was actually writing in the voice of a previous generation — their fathers' generation.

Regardless, the myth of Kerouac binging at a typewriter for three weeks to crank out the Great American Novel all in one sitting on a continuous scroll of teletype paper lives on, so much so that now it seems to be institutionalized in the form of National Novel Writing Month: “a fun, seat-of-your-pants writing event where the challenge is to complete an entire novel in just 30 days.”

Believe it or not, this is actually an exercise being carried out in classrooms all over the country, from kindergarten through senior high school.

“We know everybody can write a novel in a month,” the sponsors of this event proclaim on their website. And why not? If Kerouac could do it, why not anybody? The trick, they say, is simply to set a goal of writing a certain number of words each day until they add up to a novel-length … whatever.

This came to my attention last night during a moderated discussion on Twitter about how educators can incorporate #NaNoWriMo into the classroom. The following question was posed for discussion: “Some (teachers) think that kids can’t write a novel especially in 30 days. What are ways that a teacher might help kids succeed?”

To which, I replied — perhaps without thinking, which is seldom a good thing: “Tell them they're right. You CAN'T write a novel in 30 days. It takes more work than that.”

Now, I appreciate that the novel, as a literary form, is worthy of academic study, although I'm not sure about the appropriateness of it in early elementary grades. But maybe we should also consider the criticism that one of Kerouac's own contemporaries, Truman Capote, leveled against his style: "That's not writing, that's typing."


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