“…the end of the continent and the end of doubt, all dull doubt and tomfoolery, good-by.” – Kerouac, On The Road
Freight trains pass a few times a day, but it’s the ones after midnight that I notice most. The sound proves more intriguing then, the horn more forlorn somehow. Or maybe that’s due only to the dark hour; I’m awake again pondering while others sleep.
I arrived in Orlando, Florida on the first of December, a sunny day, 75 degrees. I wore a puffy down coat, a cowl-neck sweater, and that perennial Paris accessory, a scarf. As I waited for my ride from the airport, I peeled off layer after layer of clothes.
I’ve come to shed not only my winter garb here, but also—at least for a brief moment—the defenses built over many years: the outsider’s cloak I feel living as a foreigner in France, and an omnipresent doubt that I must use as self-protection to some degree. Disappointment sears less when you don’t believe in yourself, right?
When I learned that I was selected to be the writer-in-residence at the Kerouac House for three months, the alienation and self-doubt had been threatening to morph into a full identity crisis. Who was I? What was I doing? Where did I belong? Paris has already proven itself a beautiful, but indifferent home. Locating myself in words has always served as my answer, no matter where I am. But more and more this no longer seemed sufficient, the way paved with strife. Why not abandon writing? What’s to show for all this fight?
Yet happiness flooded my body at the news of my acceptance. “Champagne!” my boyfriend said in true French fashion, an endearing call as neither of us normally drinks. But we poured some bubbly anyway because sometimes in life the gesture really does matter. I questioned my claim to being a writer but had sent in my bid? Yes, observe what you ask of the universe. Follow that as the sign.
Jack Kerouac lived in the back of this unassuming bungalow on the corner of Clouser Avenue and Shady Lane. He moved in an unknown at age 35 and emerged ten months later an icon, the bard of the Beat Generation. On the Road was published while he lived here and The Dharma Bums written in eleven frenzied days. While I am the same age as he was then, I don’t expect to replicate such a rapid transformation nor produce as many pages. Still, important changes are occurring simply by having the chance to live and work here.
Pilgrims stop by the house every so often. So far, they have all been men, all white, which is pretty much what I expected. I’ve let in only two—I would welcome more if not a woman alone and anyway, none have actually knocked on the door—a wide-eyed student from Texas and a talkative poet from Toronto who was also chasing down Hemingway.
Kerouac has never been one of my literary heroes, but I confess to some magic here. Time and space—no greater gift exists for a writer, but I believe it’s this specific place. Kerouac’s Underwood typewriter sits on a built-in shelf, his books cram the bookcases. A triptych of him typing in the very same bedroom hangs above the single bed, a close-up by the washing machine. He and Neal Cassady stare down at me from above the living room mantle, the two in front of City Lights. When I work in the study, Jack is always behind my back, another large sketch of him on the wall. In short, it’s impossible to forget whose house I’m in.
Meditating on this particular writer—as much myth as man—I can posit why his influence affects me. A perfectionist who claws for each word, I could use a little spontaneity. How tempting to try loosening up, to compose wildly, undisciplined, the “crazier the better.” To accept that I’m a genius all the time.
Those are two of Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques for modern prose, by the way. Number 28 and 29. I can’t claim the latter’s true—that I’m a “genius all the time”—but what would happen if I pretended?
For my experiment, I began at the beginning of his famous list. Here are the top four:
“1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy”
As soon as I arrived at the Kerouac House, I printed a fresh copy of my novel manuscript, then spread it out across the dining room table chapter by chapter. The defined project, yet another round of revision. Yet this time, editing proved less painful than usual. A scene I had been incapable of writing for years suddenly crafted in a matter of days, another problem solved over one afternoon’s tea. These breakthroughs were aided by freeing myself to other fun and games.
I created erasure poems from the local College Park paper, wrote letters I never sent. One day, as I took one of my wandering walks around Lake Ivanhoe, I began humming, soon matching melody to words. I know nothing about songwriting, but why not write a song? None of this had any clear purpose, yet that is the main point. My writing practice, so fraught and strained, needed to reconnect with play. It’s a requirement for creativity, and an antidote to doubt when facing down the page.
“2. Submissive to everything, open, listening”
In truth, I find myself more in Joan Didion’s description of private notebook keepers: the “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents” rather than a secret recorder of joy. Yet here, too, this is part of the experiment. I read Didion’s essay because that is something else I have plenty of time to do: reading widely, welcoming and observing all that surrounds me. I sit on the front porch and watch the lizards skitter across the wood planks, wave at neighbors as they pass by. The Spanish moss is a marvel, like heaps of dry, curly hair or vegetal chains in the trees. After years in New York, then Paris, finding myself in central Florida feels exotic to me.
It’s difficult to conquer wide swatches of Orlando on foot, but my two legs are all I have at my disposal. I love that details arrive in sharper focus this way. A woman named Candy flirts with a tall man on her front lawn as two frisky dogs bound across the grass. A great blue heron’s height and grace amaze me as I get a close-up view of one near the bank. A couple boys in the large oak tree dare each other to jump into the lake. One rainy Friday, I find a white egret poking around my yard. A dead duck took days to decompose in the water, and just today has disappeared. I take it all in as it comes—and as it goes.
“3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house”
The streets were empty on New Year’s Eve, though the raucous sound of fireworks and 80s music filled the night air. I kept peering out the window to source the Phil Collins, the Macarena, and the cheering crowd, but I saw no visual signs of a party.
At midnight, I stepped out onto the dark street and walked one long block down Shady Lane. It was then I saw the colorful fireworks bursting over the lake, wondered if the music was really coming from the Catholic church. Four teenage boys on BMX bikes cycled along Edgewater Drive. “Happy New Year!” they called out to me.
I had Skyped with my boyfriend in Paris at 6 PM, midnight across the Atlantic. He sent me a beautiful photo of us accompanied by a song. “Home is wherever I’m with you.”
Now at midnight this time zone, I walked back and silently said my imaginary toast, a dry house, but a full mind. I’m not big into resolutions made simply because the calendar flips. But I promised myself to adopt Kerouac’s next item as my 2014 mantra as it seems to encapsulate it all:
“4. Be in love with yr life”
Nothing more, nothing less. Everything follows from there, yes?
* * *
During my third week in the house, I saved Jack Kerouac’s life. A crazed child aimed a blade at his heart and I stepped forward to intercept. I don’t usually remember my dreams and I don’t consider myself brave, but in these vivid events, I displayed no hesitation. My subconscious realizes Kerouac is saving me in a way. The dream knife pierced my brain.
I write in “recollection and amazement for myself” (#17) now. I translate the “visionary tics shivering in the chest” (#11) to the page. Kerouac started On the Road in French, his first language, “sur le chemin” originally written on that scroll. I reach for my native tongue, yet I talk to myself in French, too, every place and experience a part of me, even the estranged bits, l’etrange. If I can’t say something in my own language, perhaps I can in another. The possibilities enlarge; I have returned to wonder.
I see wisps of images as I wake now, the pictures returning along with the words. I don’t always know where I’m headed, but the train’s in motion, the whistle blows. Periods of doubt will return, I’m sure, but thanks to this residency I’ve been reminded: this is what it feels like to believe I’m a writer.
This piece was first published in the August 2014 issue of The Writer magazine.
Rumpus original art by Jim Gill.