Permission to Experiment: One Week at Jack Kerouac School of Writing
Earlier this summer, I attended a week of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
Laird Hunt, author of Neverhome and Kind One, was teaching a class on writing historical fiction which has always been my emphasis. I was looking for something new. Naropa writing programs tend to encourage experimental writing and I was giving myself permission to step outside my comfort zone. That started with sitting meditation for an hour each morning–not something I normally do, but Naropa is serious about adding contemplative education to the general curriculum. And that was only the beginning of my being challenged.
In short, Hunt feels that most historical novels are like pop-up books. The reader opens the cover of the book and a particular period of history pops up. Nothing wrong with that except that it’s been done and done and done again. Also that kind of writing fails to acknowledge the present world of both writer and reader. Historical writers, especially historical fiction writers, don’t write history. Mostly they relate what is relevant about a particular event in history from their present world perspective. Once a writer is willing to acknowledge that, experimental techniques that more honestly bridge history and present perspective make sound sense.
He offered a number of possible devices to try. It is not an exhaustive list. Hunt offered the list as a starting point. Part of the class included choosing one or more of these devices and applying them to our own projects.
- Write a fictional memoir–as if it had been written by some historical figure who didn’t actually leave a memoir.
- Gather and list various memories surrounding a larger event that define and redefine the event without actually recounting it.
- Create newspaper clippings (made-up) about an ongoing event from history. (If you’re writing fiction, you don’t have to be restricted by actual accounts, Hunt says.)
- List categories like Character, Place, Time, Language, etc. and then retell the same event over and over but each time with emphasis on a different category
- Do an update on an historical character–how are they currently viewed?
- Write an alternative history such as imagining that the Roman Empire never fell or that modern Druids still worship at Stonehenge.
- Introduce something into the history that didn’t actually exist. What if Native Americans invented gunpowder?
- There is a kind of Japanese autobiography called shishosetsa that is completely made up. Could that be made acceptable in American culture?
- Ask the same question over and over but with different answers. If Hitler didn’t die in his Berlin bunker, where did he die? How many different ways could that be answered?
- Build history around objects left behind–a book, a dress, etc. etc.
- Work with memory and associations. Memory is not trustworthy but it is the key to opening forgotten bits from the past. How could that be the focus of a narrative?
- Interview some historical character and let them lie to you. Everyone tries to shape history to prove that they were justified or right. When does that become a lie and when does the interviewer/reader know it?
For fun, here’s a video about Naropa and their writing programs that explains some of the philosophy behind their School of Disembodied Poetics. I recommend their summer program. If you are a journalism trained, straight-up novelist, it will challenge everything you thought you knew, which is good.