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I know you're up there somewhere at your Big Sur in the Sky (hopefully), probably ignorant of all the buzz about the fiftieth anniversary of the publishing of On the Road, but I wanted you to know this: when I was fifteen years old I taped the following lines to the wall above my desk, and I meditated upon them sometimes when I was alone in my room much like you did, I suppose, with your Buddha-gods:
Belief and technique in modern prose
1) Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten papers, for yr own joy
2) Submissive to everything, open, listening
3) Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4) Be in love with yr life
5) Something that you feel will find its own form
6) Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7) Blow as deep as you want to blow
8) Write what you want bottemless from bottom of the mind
9)The unspeakable visions of the individual
10) No time for poetry but exactly what it is
and so on, until finally
29) You're a genius all the time 30) Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
Number 29 I put under my senior yearbook picture. I felt good that you believed in me, Jack, and I believed in myself. I got A's in college English classes, just like you did at Columbia, and I almost never go through a day without writing, either in scribbled secret notebooks or public blogs. I suppose you got a little carried away with the whole stream-of-conciousness stuff (drugs and heavy alcohol use will do that), and you know you were only standing on the shoulders of very very tall giants (Joyce, Rimbaud, Hemingway), but On the Road has always been very special, and more importantly, it's always been special to writers.
At some point when I was fifteen, I decided to start reading "real" books, not just the Danielle Steele/Stephen King/Jane Austen rip-offs I'd been devouring for years. I went to my local Crown Books and picked out, god knows why, Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and On the Road. The first I zipped through merrily, the second I struggled with, and the third I puzzled over, until I hit those magical lines (which I can still recite from memory, oh so many years later): "...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 spider across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes 'Awwwww!'"
Oh yeah. That hit the spot: I was fifteen, hormonal, both enchanted and disgusted with a world that's suddenly sordid, but beautiful, but terribly confusing: I just wanted someone who could tell me to keep hoping. And writing. And seeing. And you did, I kept doing all of those things.
In college, I carried on a secret-letter sort-of love affair with a poet who always wrote "yr" instead of "your." I made fun of him for it, because I had by that time thought it was best to distance myself from the rather swaggering, macho associations that had become attached to the Beats (frat boys have read this book). I decided to concentrate on sixteenth-century British lit instead of twentieth-century modern, forgetting about the books that got me hooked on the whole business in the first place.
But I never forgot how you told me to write, and it never stopped being fun to just write for the hell of it, write anything down, first word is best, everything else will come, it's the act and not the product that matters deep down in the writer's soul. And I didn't stop reading, either: you were the first of many kindred souls I discovered, I could try on your eyes to see the world and use your voice to speak with. I bought a lot of books. I took classes in college that maximized the amount of books I'd be reading. I treasured the mounting mass, hoarded them, and hid them away in my parents garage. Oh my god do I have a shitload of books.
My parents just returned those books and I am slowly unpacking them in my new home, which I share with another freakishly acquisitive bookworm. And there you are, my trade paperback copies that even now I'm feverishly flipping through to find my favorite bits, visions of you and Neal Cassady (whom you named Dean Moriarty) and Allen Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti and Burroughs and all the women (good lord the women, especially when you were all gay for each other anyway). I've even got Visions of Cody tucked away here in the mountains of volumes I've collected that are so dear to my heart. I think somehow you're responsible for all of this, or at least you knew about it: all of this, all of the happiness in the world and the universe too.
I just wanted you to know that I'm having a drink tonight, Jack, and I'm gonna share it with you.
Photo of the original On the Road manuscript by thomashawk via flickr
*"On Spontaneous Prose," The Portable Jack Kerouac, ed. Ann Charters, 1995, p. 483-4.