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What I've learned from the Beat Generation: lessons on writing and marketing

If you know me in person, you probably have heard me whining about the whole Beat Generation concept once or twice (or anytime it's being mentioned in conversation). Don't get me wrong, I appreciate their literary output. Let's say it's a matter of small differences in life philosophy. Anyway, there are a ton of things I've learned while exploring their history and literary works for the past few years.


Okay... But what the Beat Generation actually is?


Let me quote aunty Wikipedia:

"The Beat Generation was a literary subculture movement started by a group of authors whose work explored and influenced American culture and politics in the post-war era. The central elements of Beat culture are the rejection of standard narrative values, making a spiritual quest, the exploration of American and Eastern religions, the rejection of economic materialism, explicit portrayals of the human condition, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation and exploration. (...) The members of the Beat Generation developed a reputation as new bohemian hedonists, who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity.".


Sounds cool, right?


Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.


Yes, their writing is interesting. Yes, they wrote books that I personally love - well, except "On the Road"... (Sorry, Kerouac, it's just plain boring most of the time). Yes, they have popularized jazz music and I cannot be more thankful for that as I'm a huge fan of this genre. Probably I wouldn't start listening to jazz if it wasn't for Beats'. But we shouldn't miss out on their, quite destructive, way of living and their general attitude... which totally sucked, to be honest.


I think that there's one quote from one of the fathers of The Beats, Jack Kerouac, that pretty much sums up their philosophy:

“… 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 center-light pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

This point of view influenced every aspect of their lives - whether it was desired and planned or not.


Disclaimer: this article won't be a biography of this movement.


I came up lately with a few lessons that The Beats taught me. I've divided the list into 2 main parts: writing and marketing.


Let's get into it!


Writing


Don't think. Just write.


Spontaneous writing can be more than satisfying. The raw, unedited thoughts scribbled in a rapid, manic stream of consciousness are the most inspiring and fascinating aspect of their writing.


The Beats valued fresh perspective and claimed that careful structuring and editing of the earlier writing was a deviation of the truth.


Let's revisit the previous quote from Kerouac's novel "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!”

Do you see what he did here?


The Beats had an exceptional way of writing: it was often chaotic, yet magnetic. You actually cannot stop reading it, just like the chaos behind it somehow glued you to the story. Amen.


Try it out: don't think, just write. Who cares if it comes out sounding stupid at the beginning when reading it aloud? You could end up with a masterpiece after all.


Seek more views of reality


Drugs were popular among the writers in the Beat Generation - they perceived them as a way to find unique points of view. Although I do not recommend you start using drugs the way The Beats did (many of them died young as a result of drug abuse), you should seek new ways of seeing things, if you want to become a remarkable writer.


Every single movement, which ended up described in history books as "great", had their artists search for new ways of looking at the world. However, these explorations don't have to be related to substance abuse. Things like travels, solo weekends, and consuming different content than usual help in developing multiple perspectives, too. And it doesn't lead you to become a mindless zombie - it's a win-win!


Stepping out of your comfort zone can be life-changing. Trying new things makes you more well-rounded and exposes you to a whole new reality that you'd never think exists. New cultures, new places... Try to become comfortable with the "new" in your life and see the difference.


Serve your stories, not morality


Believe it or not, before the Beat Generation took over the literary world, the government in the USA used censorship to silence the artists. Profanity was edited out of the texts, and scenes with explicitly sexual content were removed.


The Beats were rebellious. They believed in truth and freedom of thought. They catalyzed the change in censorship laws in the late 1950s. Basically, all the 40-something women who liked 50 Shades of Grey or 365 Days by Blanka Lipińska, should thank the Beat Generation.


They remind us to serve our stories, rather than morality.


You must be willing to break the rules of morality if you want to become one of the greatest. Shock your readers. Place your darkest thoughts in your works. Let your "shadow self" speak out. Kill the most loved characters. Make them surfer. Then make their lives a nightmare. In your writing, do not obey the "social rules". Your aspiration as a writer is to create a whole new world - how will you manage to do it if it's as plain as the real one?


Writing horrible, sometimes immoral, stories do not make you a bad person. Every human has a root for the "good ones", but sometimes the "bad ones" seem to be, I don't know, more relatable and real? Think about The Joker (can't help myself, I absolutely adore this character). We're feeling a connection to villains because they picture the parts of ourselves that we usually hide, not because we want to become one of them.


Then, if you want to tell a great story, be willing to step over the bounds of morality - but ignore it at your own risk. Especially in real life. Don't be an asshole in real life: the people, like snakes, usually bite back.


It's a lifestyle

The writer breathes in the words and breath outs the prose. It's that simple. Well... At least in theory.


You're not a writer just because you call yourself this way and carry a leather journal and fancy fountain pen around you all the time in a vintage bag - a writer, by definition, is someone who actually writes.


So, get yourself together and prepare to write daily.


Marketing


Here's the funny part: the Beats were the masters of marketing without even knowing about it. They've built one of the greatest literary movements in the history of the USA and kept people inspired by their message years after they passed away. People still remember Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady, Burroughs, Carr, and other figures of the Beat Generation.


The beats’ boys club (clockwise from front left): poet Gregory Corso (back of head to camera), painter and musician Larry Rivers, writer Jack Kerouac, musician David Amram and poet Allen Ginsburg in New York in the late 1950s. Photograph: John Cohen/Getty Images


The very first thing I've learned from them as a marketer is...


  1. To never fear change

When it comes to marketing, especially digital marketing, everything changes quite fast. From trends on social media, and influencers, to tools (think of the whole Chat GTP case that took over LinkedIn and YouTube).


When you stop learning, you fall behind. Novelty is the soul of marketing. If you're attached to the "best practices" and do only the things that are tested, you'll not succeed in a world full of competitors.


The Beats were non-conformist - that's why so many people learn about them at school.


Think of the rebranding processes of some of the largest companies out there - for example, let's shortly discuss the case of Burberry.


By the early 2000s, Burberry almost lost all of its brand prestige. People began to disassociate from the brand, and the sales started to drop heavily over the years. They knew they needed to change people's perception of the brand - once seen as a fashion powerhouse became known mostly for gang wear. They've decided to rebrand without abandoning their roots - with great success. Now, their iconic trench coats, and distinct tartan plaid are adored around the globe.


Brands that experiment and don't fear rebranding, or even pivoting, are the ones who succeed.


2. Simplicity is the key

The simpler, the better. No one wants to read complex essays unless they are college professors. Live by the words of Kerouac, and you'll be fine: “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” (The Dharma Bums)


Small tip: Try using Hemingway app for analyzing the sentences and structure of your writing.


3. Know what's important


“My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.” – Jack Kerouac


Know what to focus on and control the outcome of your actions. Keep your KPIs in mind and make sure you're actually doing everything you can to reach them.


4. Always try something new


“Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.” – Allen Ginsberg


Trust your instincts: try something new from time to time and track the results. Maybe spice up the banners on the website or re-design the app to make it look more vigorous? Observe your customers and their reactions - who knows, maybe one of these experiments will bring you new leads or hundreds of sales.


5. Screw schemes


“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view” – Jack Kerouac (On the Road)


We all have been here, searching for case studies and guides on some aspects of marketing (is there anyone who hasn't ever downloaded Hubspot's guides?). Again, don't get me wrong: using someone's knowledge and expertise to omit some of the most popular mistakes is a good tactic. However, you shouldn't rely on it too much. Experiment. Try out this weird social media ad idea that has been on your mind for the last few weeks.


Don't follow schemes, there's nothing interesting hidden in them.


6. Content is King (...or Queen?)


As Allen Ginsberg once said, “Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”


He couldn't be more right - such a shame he can't see how accurate his words are nowadays.


The more relatable and well-designed your content is, the more power you have over its consumers. Think of all the giant brands or influencers with millions of followers - there must be something in their content that keeps people coming back.


The best content is the one that makes people feel. The Beats made people dream of freedom, travels, and hooked them with the idea of doing whatever the f*** they want. They were both adored and hated. But they've definitely succeeded in making people remember them.


Make your brand stick in people's minds by using smart storytelling techniques and leveraging the right marketing channels for your target group.




The Beat Generation did influence its time and made it easier for the next generation of artists to embrace being bold. The Beats made people crave exploration and experimentation. Even though the literary world has evolved since the 50s, consumers stayed the same. From the very beginning, the main goal of the content was to influence people. Use it to your advantage and pay attention to your brand's identity and how it's perceived by your customers. If you'll feel stuck, come back to the tips from this article. Good luck!


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