When I set out on the road back in the mid 1970s it was a sprint for freedom but it was also born in the realization, or perhaps I should say the delusion, that until that point of my life I had nothing worthwhile to say as a writer. That isn’t true, of course. A writer can write anywhere, anytime, regardless of background or previous experience. As Thoreau says, and I quote in “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search“: “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some ‘Symmes’ Hole’ by which to get to the inside at last.” That’s what I was searching for, the inside. I was looking for a way to draw out all that was pent up inside. I was a surgeon needing to lance a boil so all the pus would come out – except I was confident that when it finally burst, the result would be rainbows and not corpulence.
I traveled light, of course. In my duffle bag I kept a sleeping bag, a toiletry kit with a few essential implements such as toothbrush, toothpaste, razor and so on, a few alternate items of clothing. Eventually I stopped wearing underwear under my jeans; one less thing, thought I. On hot days I packed my leather Navy flight jacket in the bag as well. Besides these necessary things, I had others I considered no less essential: a book to read, a notebook, and a pen.
The notebook I took on my first journey to Europe and then to the East was a lined notebook with a black and white patterned cardboard cover. For week, months even, it remained buried in my bag unopened. In fact, I can remember initiating entries when I was sitting on a beach in Goa, India. I clearly remember that occasion. I was probably sitting on the sand. The sun was bright. I wrote no more than a few paragraphs and then put the notebook aside again. On another occasion I sat on a hillside outside Kathmandu, Nepal, and recounted some of what I had been observing in that singular city. On yet another instance I wrote while far up in the Himalayas somewhere northwest of Pokhara, Nepal. I had gone up there all alone, my duffle bag on my shoulder, without a guide, without a map, following unmarked trails upward.
It was not until long afterwards, while back on the road again on the west coast of the United States, that I realized what a treasure I had in that notebook. Or perhaps notebooks. There may have been two by then. I realized, with a flash of revelation, that I had found my voice as a writer back there on that journey to the East, that I had written honest words wrung out of my stark experiences, that, in fact, the words did not get more pure than those I had ready within those pages.
After I realized that, I bought more notebooks – larger ones. I began to write every chance I got. I was still on the road, still on the cutting edge of life, so to speak, with experiences leaping out at me one after the other. In my travels I would stop wherever I had somewhere comfortable enough to sit and start writing. I would write as fast as I could get the pen to move. I would pour out whatever I was going through in words, one after the other, and when I was done I would close the notebook and move on. Jazz prose, I called it. I was like a musician composing a melody, but I was doing it with words instead of music. I discovered that the fountain I had been seeking, my own personal fountain of youth, the fountain I had equated with puss from a boil, was not corpulent at all; it was not diseased, not evil, not degenerate, not weak. In fact, it was pure, vital, strong, and erupted from the essence of the creative force within humankind, the same urge that caused some to draw on walls and others, once there was alphabet to codify speech, to record their experiences.
During this time, as I said, I was on the road, and I experienced periods of intense euphoria, but also periods of intense loneliness. And my duffle bag grew heavier as I filled one notebook after the other.
During an interlude in Seattle while staying at my mother’s house, I transcribed some of the material from the notebooks. The writings fit neatly into sections of autobiographical prose poetry, some of which I sent off to literary magazines. The notebooks and all the manuscript carbon copies I stored in a box in the basement of my mother’s house.
Those notebooks are lost. I would love to have them again. I would love to re-transcribe them with prologues and epilogues and bind the material into books. A writer’s wealth is in words, and I lost a fortune when I lost those notebooks. They served the purpose, however, of releasing my voice. I don’t know if a writer could sit down and write, “Blah, blah, blah…” until something meaningful came and truth would suddenly emerge. As for me, I deliberately flung myself into stark, dangerous, unique experiences to prod the eruption of words, so to speak. I don’t think the kind of danger I went through is even a prerequisite, though. Life is fraught with danger, turmoil, conflict, opposition, whether one deliberately seeks it or no. If a writer is honest with himself or herself and others, the truth will out, as they say. And even in fiction, whether as writers or readers, that’s what we seek for: truth. Whether the writer speaks from gut or heart or head, whether the goal is sheer entertainment or the passing on of core, essential reality, we want to feel that sincerity. We want the writer to take us along on the journey, to see and feel whatever is present in the writer’s inner landscape, to be transported to the alternate universe the writer has envisioned.
For even the journey I recount in “World Without Pain” is not the same journey I recounted in my lost notebooks. They are distinct alternate universes, born out of different times and places. The writer I was back in the 1970s writing the notebooks is not the same writer I was much later while living in Greece and writing “World Without Pain” in retrospect. In one instance I was living through the experience, in the other I was recalling whatever I could of it.
The point? Both experiences are valid, and I wish I had the words from both. But whatever a writer writes, it comes from the writer’s current reality and cannot be the same words that would have been written by an alternate self decades in the past. All a writer has is the present in which to put out whatever words he wishes to present to the world. Each word that comes forth is an accumulation of all the education and experience a writer has acquired until that moment. A voice is a voice. It speaks.