The Kerouac Method: Travel, Experience and the Empirical Approach to Writing (Blog)

According to legend, Jack Kerouac composed his landmark novel, On the Road, during a single non-stop writing session of three weeks. The author’s wife kept him going with bowls of pea soup and countless cups of coffee.

The influence of James Joyce is certainly present in his writing – he wrote the original manuscript in “spontaneous prose” on a single scroll. The scroll itself had a minimalistic approach to punctuation, lack of paragraph breaks and other kinks that harken back to the end of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.

It should also be noted that Kerouac collected material for On the Road more than seven years of travel Kerouac undertook after brief stints at Columbia University and the United States Merchant Marine Corps. The author took notes on his travels in notebooks and unleashed them all into a raw, uncompromising roman à clef during the course of one three-week long writing session.

Writing about one’s experiences isn’t the only viable approach to the craft.

Jules Verne had probably never been 20,000 leagues under the the sea, but that didn’t keep him from writing well about it.

But there is something unique, and dare I say, compelling to the empirical method.

Once upon a time, I studied in Buenos Aires.

In an Argentine literature course, I learned about this cat named Lucio V. Mansilla, a colonel in the Argentine army who was sent to go negotiate a peace treaty with the Ranquel Indians in 1870. The government in Buenos Aires wanted to build a railroad through Indian Territory. The Raquels, of course, weren’t having it.

Colonel Mansilla then set off on a ten-day journey with a small group of men, hoping to meet with the local chief Mariano Rosas.

His voyage through the Pampas resulted in a 467 page classic of Argentine literature A Visit to the Ranquel Indians, which contained everything from ruminations on why you can sleep better in the pampas than in certain hotels, to narrations of the white author’s experiences getting drunk with the Indians, and cutting his toenails with a military saber.

Sí, el mundo no se aprende en los libros, se aprende observando, estudiando los hombres y las costumbres sociales.

“Right, you don’t learn about the world in books, you learn by observation, studying men and their social customs,” Mansilla declared.

One of the most compelling aspects of literature is its deep connection with imagination. Whether palpable or abstract, it is possible to write about almost any subject. The difficulty lies in both having a message, and making it understandable to others.

Content can have all the more resonance, however, when the individual transmitting it has some sort of direct experience with the subject.

For example, one might remember that Mark Twain spent years sailing up and down the Mississippi before using the landscapes he observed as templates for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Likewise, it is unlikely Julio Cortázar’s depictions of Horacio Oliveira meandering around the Pont des Arts in Hopscotch would have had the same candor and color had the author not lived in Paris during the 1950s.

In everything we do, we draw upon what we know.

Everything from our chosen occupations to the clothes we wear and the books we get lost in, are, in some way, reflective of us as individuals.

And with each passing day, we are bombarded with new experiences. Thousands of sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes reach us by way of the senses in any given period of 24 hours.

Each of them leaves a minute impression that, even if only for a moment, serves as a reminder that there is a world around us – that we are components of an immense system.

If Heraclitus was right to say none of us can step into the same river twice because from moment-to-moment it becomes a different river, we might likewise ask if the same isn’t true for us individuals from one day to the next.

So on one level, an infinite number of moments compose our lives. We remember, or forget, these moments based on the impressions they leave on us, and these are the reference points by which we anchor ourselves to the world.

Each one of these, in turn, can be converted into concepts and ideas.

“What if the vagrant I saw on the street yesterday had once been rich?”

“What if I’d spoken to the sad-looking girl who was sitting by herself at the bar last night?”

For those of you who, like myself, might aspire to be a paperback writer, there’s good news – each day can provide you with new content open to no one’s interpretation but your own.

The starry night is right in front of you. It only needs to be transferred onto a canvas, and perhaps one day that canvas will be enshrined in the Louvre.

As an editor of mine once said, “Go, and see, and do, and write.”

headshotHorus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at

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