The difference between writing and typing

Upon hearing that Jack Kerouac had written his wildly popular novel “On The Road” on one continuous scroll of typewriter paper during a three-week benzedrine binge, the novelist Truman Capote famously quipped:

“That’s not writing, that’s just typing.”

It’s not that Capote was wrong, it’s that he missed the point.

Three weeks in the typing, four years in the writing

Putting aside the envy responsible for Capote’s quip – no writer relishes seeing another writer being launched into the literary stratosphere right under their nose – the truth is that Jack Kerouac had in fact been working on his “road book” for four whole years before he sat down to do the infamous benzedrine draft.

He wrote draft after draft. He tried different styles, different ways of telling the story he knew was in him somewhere. He put in the time, and he had the patience, to get to know his material inside and out – so well, in fact, that he could then sit at his typewriter and bang out something as incredible as On The Road in three weeks.

And so, in this sense, Capote was completely right – sitting down at a typewriter and just typing for weeks is not writing. It’s just that that’s not what happened with On The Road

The final result is just one piece of the puzzle

If you’re writing a novel, or a song, or a speech, then the most satisfying moment is finishing it. It’s having the novel on your hard-disk, ready to send to your editor. It’s having the song recorded and ready to share with your fans. It’s being 100% ready to deliver that speech.

It’s very easy, though, to confuse that final result with the whole picture.

You see, that novel, that song, that speech… that’s not the whole picture at all. That is merely the tangible proof – the evidence of the journey you’ve been on – what was probably a very long, very deep, and very challenging journey.

From the first grain of a little idea, to jotting down connecting ideas on napkins, to taking rainy walks to muse upon it further, to writing draft after draft after draft – each one showing you something essential to the whole, but not quite hitting the mark – to finally, finally, finally, having it all converge and become something you can hang your hat on.

There’s no point denying the intoxicating nature of finishing – of holding that final tangible result in your hands – but you make it all the more sweet by focusing on everything that comes before it, on knowing your material like the back of your hand.

The danger of the Kerouac “writing On The Road in three weeks story” is that just because he typed it in three weeks, doesn’t mean he wrote it in three weeks. Art takes time. Let it.

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