The Last Hiking Book, I Swear

Outside the English building on FSU’s campus there is a hot dog stand where I would often go between classes for a cup of coffee. One day when I walked up and the girl working there was reading a book by Bill Bryson. “Do you like Bill Bryson?” I asked.

“He’s pretty entertaining,” she said, plugging the coffee capsule into the Keurig.

“I read A Walk in the Woods, where he hikes the Appalachian Trail, and really enjoyed it.” I was only telling half of the truth–I had only read half of the book.

“Yeah,” she said, cocking her head, “but he didn’t even finish the trail.”

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Travels with Steinbeck

Who's my blue dog?After reading two frenetic, romantic Kerouac novels (On the Road and Dharma Bums) in a short time, picking up John Steinbeck‘s Travels with Charley was like a breath of fresh air. No more sententious philosophizing, no more blurriness between fact and fiction, Steinbeck presents himself as simply an aging man with a big blue poodle named Charley, a camper truck, and a desire to look for America.

However, that doesn’t mean the book lacks meditations; just that Steinbeck tends to meditate outward, on the nature of travel, on a changing America, on regional differences that together define America, rather than the inward-looking Kerouac. Some of Steinbeck’s meditations are so insightful, so lucid, I found myself putting down the book, staring off into space and saying to myself, “That’s why he’s Steinbeck.” He makes travel writing look easy.

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The Dharma Bums Initiative

That's what my copy looks like.

Although I didn’t originally intend to read Dharma Bums in preparation for this trip, after I finished On the Road, I needed more Kerouac. I felt that delving further into Kerouac’s tales of beatnik debauchery would put me more in touch with that 15-year-old me, vegetarian, trying to grow dreadlocks, embracing The Grateful Dead and The Big Lebowski, choosing every alternative to the straight and narrow.

Now, that’s not to say I was a bad kid. I was too afraid of punishment to commit felonies or fall into hard drugs. I went to school and got decent grades just to keep the attention off. But internally I resented authority and wanted to rebel. I held the beats, and the hippies, on a pedestal. I read Desolation Angels, where Kerouac sits alone on a mountaintop a couple seasons as a fire lookout, and copied his poetry, meditations, and incantations to notecards, thinking I’d put them to music.

Or maybe I just like the way Kerouac writes.

Or maybe it’s because my alma mater, Rollins College, shares the original manuscript with the Kerouac House in the College Park area of Orlando, where Kerouac wrote the novel and later died.

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The Wild Success of Wild

Check out my book review.

Seeing all the wildly positive (see what I did there?) reviews about this book, and feeling the need to represent the female gender in my reading list, I decided to read Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild. In fact, I got a review copy through The Southeast Review so I could write my own review of the book and, yes, it was wildly positive. I’ll link to it here in the future if the SER editors choose to use it. Hell, the book single-handedly inspired Oprah to resurrect her book club.

Cheryl Strayed is also known as advice columnist Dear Sugar, and this is her advice.

If SER Online doesn’t use it, well then I got a credit hour out of it anyway, and I got to see how one writer can write so concretely about emotion and experience while simultaneously rendering the trials and figures of her journey into metaphors about her own coming of age.

Wild is the story of a 26-year-old woman who retreats to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border, to grapple with the hardships of her life. But it’s about much more than that.

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Thoughts on Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide to Immersion Writing

The nonfiction genre is a contentious battleground where authors, critics, and audiences wield fact and fabrication, truth and exaggeration, to make claims upon the hazy territory between literary style and subservience to what happened. I witnessed a battle such as this in March at AWP in Chicago (faithfully depicted here), where I also saw, at a different panel, Robin Hemley speak about honesty and persona in nonfiction. While a piece of writing can never flesh a person in her entirety, Hemley claimed, a successful piece must always employ a coherent persona: the combo of  voice, perspective, cultural background and experience. Honesty falls in service to this persona; not that a successful piece lacks honesty, but that it creates a seeming honesty for the reader that maintains itself over time.

At least that’s what I got from his talk.

With all these evolving expectations and tricky guidelines, I figured I’d better stay updated on the crafts and techniques of the genre I’ll be writing in for Haney on the Train. Thankfully, Robin Hemley just this year published A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel. (That plus I’m a writing craft book junkie—I even taught a freshman writing course last year called Writing About the Craft). What’s Immersion Writing, you ask? It’s a subset of nonfiction writing where the author immerses himself in his subject, employing the first-person point of view and even turning the lens back on himself at times to lend intimacy to the story. I think of immersion writing as what New Journalism, practiced by writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe, has evolved into. Readers should always know where the writer stands in relation to his subject. Continue reading

Revisiting On the Road

This past April I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for at least the second time in my life. Like Sal and Dean’s sojourns across America, some complete, some derailed, some half-starts and some hardly remembered at all, it’s hard to say exactly how many times I’ve delved into this novel. Even my copy is frayed and yellowed, coffee-stained and missing both the front and back covers. The narrative inside, however, spoke to me first as an impressionable early teen and influenced my shaky relationship with conventionality and authority. And I’m sure, from somewhere in the chasms of my subconscious, that first reading of On the Road helped me conceive Haney on the Train.

We now regard OtR as the definitive novel for the Beat movement of the American 50s. Kerouac, if working in today’s market, may have done better to publish OtR under the heading of nonfiction (he may have sold more copies), but converting and expanding his experiences into the novel form allowed him to elaborate and condense, forget, remember, and forget to remember the capital-T Truths of his experiences. Though we can never know which details are true and which are fabricated in Kerouac’s aggrandizement, relaying these pilgrimages across the highways of America in the fiction genre allows him to conjure up a new hero for the 1950s counter-culture, Dean Morrearty, “who had the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint” (39). Though reality can indeed be stranger than fiction, Kerouac’s fictionalization of reality serves to beatify his main character and elevate Dean to the proper proportions for an American folk hero—the unassailable journeyman clutching to his liberty and searching always for a home that doesn’t exist. Continue reading