Tenth Avenue & 20th Street

30 May

The more I write these the more I realize how any given corner is going to hold any number of meanings — as many connotations as there are people. Really, more connotations than there are people, since a single spit of land can mean several things to just one individual. Perhaps endless things? How much do you choose to admit to? I think it was Hemingway who said something along the lines of, “Tell the story as it truly happened, and what you choose to leave out will determine the form and voice.” Isn’t that what all good fiction is: a (somewhat) ordered telling of the truth? And isn’t the voice that tells it determined more or less by what it owns up to, admits, by just how it chooses to order things?

So what’s the truth? Well, whatever you tell me it is. Whatever you make me believe. It seems that my main interest these days is simply to immerse myself in everything creative that anybody ever did. What fun. I just want to read, and watch and listen to and stare at. These are the things that feed us, and a lot of times they get us drunk as well. Delicious. No matter how much you create yourself you have to figure that you’ll spend far more time in your life taking in the creations of others. Well of course, there are billions of us! How much do you want to think about yourself anyway? Keep your eyes open and respond to things, make decisions when you have to — the rest of it all sort of comes together.

A big one for me was always Kerouac, and On the Road specifically. He wrote the first draft near this corner in April of 1951, at 454 West 20th Street, in the apartment he shared with his wife Joan Haverty. Now look, as people go, he was pretty terrible, I know. His was not a life I’d want to replicate. And in truth most of his other books are unreadable, only published because of the success of On the Road. But with that book he got it right. His life itself was far from admirable. The lives of his characters in On the Road were far from admirable. But the book itself is admirable. Because he wrote a story with a voice that told the truth, that admitted to a certain tone and tenor of life. What was it exactly? Well, what he wrote. What’s in the book. It is the book, like all the great ones are, from start to finish, each word read one after the other. That’s the only way to get it.

Everyone used to like to make a big deal about how Jack wrote the book in three weeks straight. Now everyone likes to make a big deal about how it actually took much longer than that, with detailed notebooks preceding the first draft, and six years of revisions following it. Well either way, he wrote the book. He didn’t live at 454 West 20th Street for very long, about six months, before he went back on the road. E.M. Forster, in his amazing series of lectures, Aspects of the Novel, talks about presenting “the life in time,” – plot, character, narrative – alongside “the life by values,” – the deeper resonance that all good novels sound; to break through the narrative, or maybe use the narrative, to touch upon the face of something else. I don’t care about Kerouac’s life in reality, or even his personal values, or his characters lives – what they did in the book. I care about what he wrote, the moments of value, of resonance, inside his story, namely, that no matter what, each moment passes, full of joy and melancholy. “I forgave everybody, I gave up, I got drunk.” Sound familiar? Sometimes. I’m getting drunk, but I have nothing to forgive you for. Why should I? You’re alive, I think, well just like me.

(Originally posted July 24th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

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