Write What You Know

I have to write what I know. And tonight, what I know is that I was born too late. I wasn't supposed to be here, looking over the edge of May 2012, with one ear turned back to catch the whispers of the beat poets and the feminists and the dire predictions of planetary warming. I wasn't supposed to be around to watch nuclear waste take over arctic waters, choking out cod and salmon. I wasn't supposed to land in the midst of a culture whose biggest political issue seems centered on controlling who gets to marry whom, and whether those two parties are of the same gender.

Jack Kerouac said "the best writing is always the most painful personal wrung-out tossed from cradle warm protective mind," whatever that meant, though I'm pretty sure I know. And I'm pretty sure I'm a little in love with the guy, if I can claim that for a person who lived and died a fierce, vibrant, singular, manic, wine-soaked, road-tramping life before I ever thought to be born. Regardless, I agree with Jack--the best writing is always what you know.  You take your innermost self, the most intimate knowledge that you've spent years gleaning and cherishing and building, and toss it out there into the world and see if it holds up.  The world might eat it for breakfast.  Or, years down the road, people might still be talking about it, holding it up to the light as one holds up a strange, sparkling gem.

There is a theory, as stated in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, that says you have to do something for about 10,000 hours before you really know it--before it becomes second nature. This theory explains why I am really good at singing, horseback riding, and taking road trips. What if I had applied those 30,000 hours to saving money, or learning statistics, or playing basketball? Would I be a rich, nerdy basketball star instead of a person who used to live in her car, sings in night clubs, and doesn't mind the smell of horse poop? Hard to imagine. But here's the real mind-blower for me tonight: I'm trying to imagine who Jack Kerouac would have been if he'd spent his 30,000 hours differently. Because let's face it: the guy was good at writing, tramping and drinking, so we can safely guess what he was doing day in and day out. You don't just develop a strong liver from drinking water. Overnight. And you don't learn how to keep yourself alive on railroads and in sideyards and cutting paths through fields and backroads, from holding down a desk and looking at the world from behind safe glass walls. But what if he had?

Well, probably safe to say we wouldn't have this:

“What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
― from On the Road

There would be no Dharma Bums, no On The Road; the beat culture might never have been; San Francisco wouldn't be what it is today.  Kerouac was a bum, a tramp, an outcast by so many standards. What if he had fit in?  What if he had streamlined himself to the political issues of his day, held down a proper job, refused to mingle with minorities, and stayed on the beaten track?  So much American hippie culture lost, so much color gone down the drain, or worse, never imagined at all.

So I lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.  Maybe I wasn't supposed to be here, nearly halfway through 2012; it hardly seems possible, some days.  Yet the mind wanders ahead: not if, but when, will we see fit to set ourselves free?  When will we have our collective 10,000 hours of practice at caring for our planet and the creatures that share it?  For our atmosphere?  For ourselves?  Each of us needs that 10,000 hours of adventure, doing something different, being someone Other, exploring what might happen if we jump off into the unknown.  And so here I am, nuclear waste and all, puzzling over a culture that strives to control who loves whom, wondering at a world that still insists on repressing half its citizens; but I am putting in my hours.  10,000 hours of loving.  10,000 hours of learning.  10,000 hours of traveling, and another 10,000 for every single thing that brings me joy.  I am only one person; but so was Kerouac.  One single, crazy, culture-defying, life-eating, rail-dancing person.  And years down the road, we are holding up this gem, still looking at the way the light hits it, making it sparkle, making it dance.


  1. I'm going to guess, not being good at math, that I've put in more than 10K hours playing soccer but somehow I missed a lesson. I've changed careers enough times to get close to that in several and I think that makes me a more rounded person, so maybe that's a bit of what you are getting at. I wish I had done the 10K hours at construction when I was younger so that I might have made it a career. Love building things with my own hands.

    1. I bet you've put in more hours than you can count at being a good dad and a good human. Looks that way from here.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts