Visions of Kerouac,
or one writer's beginnings

A rambling by Audrey Clark,
October 1999

The October air blew crisp and clear, with just enough bite to redden my cheeks. The late afternoon sky curved overhead like a brilliant blue bowl placed upside-down over the land. I was parked on the side of a curving mountain road, staring out across miles of blazing orange and red treetops in the Cherokee National Forest. I reached into the glovebox and pulled out a battered copy of On the Road. It didn't have a cover and dog-eared pages crinkled under my fingertips. I flipped it open to one of the passages I'd highlighted: "I was a young writer and I wanted to take off. Somewhere along the line I knew there'd be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me." I leaned back in my seat and inhaled the warm scents of pine trees and autumn sunlight. Drumming my fingertips on the steering wheel, I closed my eyes and waited -- for the Sound of Trumpets, the Voice from Above, the Flash of Lightning -- for the pearl to be handed to me.

I'm ready, I thought. I've got the passion of youth and a year of college on my side. I was in the Smoky Mountains in a town I'd never heard of before, and I was ready to be inspired. Somewhere inside of me, pulsing and humming, a novel waited to be born -- and I knew that if I followed Jack Kerouac's road, the Great Secret would be given to me. I'd been planning for that day for most of my life.

I've always known what I wanted to be when I grew up. (It was the growing up part that gave me problems.) At my high school graduation, family and friends flocked around me, pressing for answers about my future. I figured I would go to college, I told them, and probably study English. A teacher, then? they asked. I smiled and shook my head -- No, a Writer. They stepped back and looked at me like I'd just sprouted horns and fangs. I always get that same reaction from anyone I talk to -- wariness, suspicion, along with a little doubt. A writer is one of the most feared people in the world. Writers tell the Truth, even when it's ugly and dirty and hurtful. Kerouac taught me that.

I absorbed everything that he wrote, soaking it up the way summer puddles melt into the sun-baked ground. Kerouac's vision had caught fire in my head, and I found myself straining against family and friends and school. This wasn't what I was meant to be! I shouted silently. I read his books over and over, reveling in the truth of his words: "At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the December colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night."

Kerouac's writing pulsed with the spirit of rebellion and the joy and pain of truly living. Not just going through the motions, but seeing and feeling everything. That's how I found myself in Etowa, 300 miles from home, with nothing but a bag of clothes, a tent, a notebook and a pen, and $150. I didn't need much more.

October faded into November, and my notebook was empty. I'd spent countless nights huddled close to my small campfire, scribbling line after line of reckless prose, raging against the stifling of creativity and simplicity, only to reread it and mark out every other line in disgust. It didn't sound like Kerouac -- it didn't come close to having his urgency or his intensity. I was just a young girl, far away from home, trying on a coat that didn't fit right. And probably never would.

That night I tossed my notebook into the campfire, loaded up my small bag of possessions, and headed back to Martin. I'd been by myself for a little over two weeks, and I was craving some human contact again. I found a ratty, one-bedroom apartment in Martin and a job at a local restaurant.

I kept a copy of his "List of Essentials" for modern prose taped to the inside of my notebook, and another copy taped to my bathroom mirror: "The unspeakable visions of the individual," "Believe in the holy contour of life," "Write what you want bottomless from the bottom of the mind." Kerouac's struggle to find his own voice comforted me, and I immersed myself in writing again. I spent my free time in an all-night coffee shop, drinking cup after cup of thick, black coffee, an open notebook on the table in front of me. Sometimes I would talk to the people around me, but most often I would sit back and listen, open to everything they were saying. I wanted to be part of what they were doing, but again, I felt that what I had to offer was not enough: "They danced down the street like dingledodies, and 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...."

What I needed was inspiration, and I could only get that from the people around me, I thought. I needed to meet people who nursed the same secret midnight cravings that I did -- kindred spirits. I needed to meet Neal Cassady. Of course, I knew that was impossible because he was Dead. But somewhere, I thought, somewhere the living reincarnation of the "Holy Goof Hisself" is walking around and he's looking for Me. He's been carrying that Pearl of Wisdom for so long, and he's ready to turn it over.

My breaking point came when I took one of my notebooks over to the English department and asked a teacher that I trusted to read and comment on it. He returned my notebook a few days later. Scrawled in red ink across the front page were the words, "Poorly written teen angst." Of course, I believed him. The notebook ended up in the trash, and I vowed that I would never write again.

I was wrong. At odd times, during work or while I was driving, a line would pop into my head. They didn't arrive with the urgency of Kerouac's writing; instead, they came slowly, lingering in my mind and rolling over my tongue. At first I would ignore them, but eventually, I started putting them down on paper again. I didn't do anything with them -- just stored them in a desk drawer until the time was right. Little did I know how soon that time would be.

A year had passed since I spent those two weeks in the Smoky Mountains. I knew what I still wanted. I wanted to have Ideas. Instead, I had a baby. Cassidy Neal arrived in November on a clear night much like the ones I had spent camped out in the mountains. As I held her in my arms and looked down at this tiny human being, so new and yet so wise, I marveled at the stories she would tell one day. I realized that, all along, I had been fighting my true voice. I had tried to copy Kerouac's voice, tried to mold myself to his vision, to something that wasn't me. I was a writer, and I did have something to say. Perhaps it wouldn't change the face of American culture the way Kerouac did, but it would have a power and a resonance of its own. I could hear it echoing in Cassidy' cry as I smiled and held her to my chest. This is what I was meant to be, I thought.

I still have that battered copy of On the Road. I sometimes pull it out late at night when Cassidy is asleep. I sit in the rocking chair next to the front window and stare out across the field to the highway, imagining it stretching across the fields and valleys and mountains, snaking across the land like some giant compass needle, pointing the way to Kerouac's Great Secret. Turns out that I had known the Truth all along. It was right there on my "List of Essentials" -- "Something that you feel will find its own form." Kerouac taught me that, too.

[ by Audrey Clark ]

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