When I was a teenager, On the Road was one of my favorite novels. And part of that was because I was a seventeen-year-old kid without a car stuck in study hall in a smelly high school cafeteria when I read it. But part of it was also how effortlessly the novel flowed from Jack Kerouac’s life. How riding in a car cross-country, having a friend you had ridiculous chemistry with, trying to travel and write and live became art. There was something magical about living a life so wonderful that it ended up in the pages of literature. That, I think, was what really did it for me.
For years I tried to do what Jack Kerouac had done. I tried to fit as much into life as possible, to go every new place I could, to rush after the craziest, brightest, most senselessly wonderful people I could find. And I wanted to write about all of it. I kept voluminous journals, I committed every interesting word spoken to me to the page, I recorded every road trip I went on, every border I crossed, every night I slept in my car, every beautiful song a friend sang, every time I had great sex, every night that lasted until dawn, how I felt when the World Trade Centers went down and I watched it from my roof in Brooklyn, my thoughts on the wars that were just then beginning, my descent into drug addiction, the way the East River looked at sunset in Brooklyn–everything.
I started writing a novel that would encompass all these things. An autobiographical novel about love and drugs and art, about being a kid in a dying small town, then being lost in a big city, about friends and enemies and why I loved and hated them, about searching for something to make life and writing worth it.
By the time I went back to college at age 26, I’d given up on that novel. I had rewritten and rewritten it, and it was never finished. And it never would be, because I was living it.
In school, I got used to reading the fiction of other people much younger than me. I read a lot about loft parties. I read a lot about being a young artist. I read a lot about road trips. It bored the hell out of me. My own writing was going off someplace else, into imagined landscapes and worlds that were almost like this one, but fundamentally different. I wasn’t writing genre fiction, but I was making things up in ways that I had when I was very young and very uninfluenced by the writing of others. Before I started reading autobiographical novels and realism. When writing was about creating worlds and having fun.
Then, in one of my classes, one of my professors said something that I found really funny and really meaningful.
“I know people tell you all the time to write what you know,” he said. “But the fact is, most of you are white suburban kids and no one cares.”
This was pretty awesome at a school where it seems like everyone is given a big pat on the back for being a special little snowflake at every turn. And it made sense. Yeah, even if I had been an addict and an artist and one of the weirdest outcast kids at my high school, so was just about everybody else who wanted to be a writer. And, yes, those things could still be written about, anything can be written about if it’s done well. But I was pretty sure that wasn’t what I wanted to write anymore.
Now, while I’m unemployed, I’m really hard at work on the novel I started two years ago and put off to the side. It’s an acid western set in the California Gold Rush. I obviously wasn’t alive for the Gold Rush. I have been to California for the total of two weeks over ten years ago. I am not the main character. I’m pretty sure I’m not any of the characters. I regularly have to look up things like the indigenous flora of the state of California. Or how smallpox actually kills you. Or the mythology of the Miwok people. I spend days in the NYPL Main Branch, learning about things I know nothing about, making notes, using those notes to make up scenes, characters, action and ruminations. It’s fun and exciting and wonderful. And there’s more ideas and lives crammed into it than there every could have been in any novel that I wrote about myself.
And still, I’m in there. The things I see are woven into the landscape. The characters have glimpses of people I have seen or known living inside them. Some of the things that happen are events I’ve seen or lived or heard tell of. But I am not the focus. I am just someone who makes the focus clearer with what I have seen.
Who knows, maybe one day I will go back to writing about myself. Maybe I’ll write an amazing memoir when I’m 80 years old and it’ll be the best thing I’ve ever written. But for now, I’m really happy to write what I don’t know, and to learn enough to do so.