Reflections from the Well
On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration
By Alexander Slagg
Finding Yourself in the Books You Read
Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake, a challenge that seeks the password, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing.
— MIchael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs
They came from Santa Claus one Christmas: a copy of both The Dharma Bums and On the Road propped up next to my stocking, awaiting me as I moped down the stairs, rubbing my eyes that morning. I didn’t read them at first. Jack Kerouac’s bibles to the good life sat on my tidy little desk in my tidy little room, tidy little house in a tidy little suburb.
I couldn’t tell you today what Santa Claus was thinking all those years ago. The promise of what Kerouac offered me in those books was nowhere to be seen as I traipsed through the snow that winter, back and forth to my prison-like public high school. That’s how it felt. That’s how suffocating safety and security feels to an adolescent, I guess. As I now know, Santa is a visitor from the Imagination. And he had a very important gift to bestow upon me.
For no reason in particular, I took those books with me to Florida in the spring. I needed something to distract me from this annual family getaway, wherein everyone did whatever they could to get away from the family for a week. Arriving at the condo we were staying in, I unpacked my suntan lotion, my swimsuit, my Walkman and Led Zeppelin cassettes. And when I was finally alone, I unpacked Kerouac’s books and started reading.
I read them on the beach. I read them on the deep-sea fishing boat, because...I don’t like to fish. I read them in the rental car on the way to dinner each evening. I read them in bed with a flashlight. In a week’s time I had read both books cover to cover. Aside from a run of Chris Claremont-written Uncanny X-Men comics, I’d never been so drawn in by anything I’d read.
All of the real estate tax money that funded my prestigious high school, all of the hours spent by bored English teachers assigning The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird in the hopes of inspiring some student interest in literature, all of the sleepy hours spent numbly reading these authority-approved books — all had been for naught. Kerouac’s books spoke to me in a voice divine and the message was clear: Everything you’ve been told is wrong. There is a whole world out there for you to explore and discover. Adventure is waiting when you’re ready to take that first step.
The act of writing is a solitary activity. The act of reading is a solitary activity. But somehow, amid all this aloneness, a connection is formed, an alchemical process takes place. The saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal of the imagination mix and something magical happens. The reader has an experience that bonds him or her with the writer.
This connection is magic. It might span mere seconds between a Tweet and a response, or it could span centuries. You know it when you feel it. But many don’t know the value of paying attention to this experience.
A piece of art is a mirror. It’s reflecting back to you yourself. Do you recognise yourself in it? If you don’t, then PAY ATTENTION! Because you are seeing yourself. No, silly, not literally. Look past the obvious, into the world of symbols and archetypes and fairies. There you are, or some aspect of you. Now your job is to realize that connection — draw it out of the imaginary and more fully into the “real” world.
Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well offers a literary lounge, where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Feel free to share your own experiences by commenting on a post.