Those who read my blog somewhat regularly may have noticed that I post every three or four days – I don’t stick to a particularly rigid schedule, but I like to keep the blog updated regularly and I generally have plenty of ideas to write about, whether they’re things pulled from my journal or just a response to something I saw that seems important that day.
However, there was a sizable gap between my last two posts that merits explanation. I vanished for about a week, and I’m not even sure how that time disappeared.
In the past few weeks, my life has exploded with opportunities. I bought a magazine last week, Creative Nonfiction, and I noticed a phrase on the back cover: DRUNK ON POSSIBILITY, it says, the block letters blending subtly with the color of the cover. It seems like an apt phrase for describing both my exhilaration and time loss.
I can hardly keep up with everything that I’m working on right now, and my inbox has been flooded with emails daily. I’m suddenly finding myself with job opportunities – the option to extend my internship, the possibility of working as a research assistant this winter. One of my favorite professors asked if she could quote something I said during class discussion in a paper she’s publishing and seemed happy to chat with me about choosing a novel for my thesis paper. The professor I’m working for this summer put me in contact with another professor who in turn talked to me for over an hour about my thesis before offering to send my resume to a current Slate columnist and a former editor of the Wall Street Journal. I have PDFs of anthropology papers saved on my desktop, all piling up for when I have time to turn my attention to beginning my thesis work in earnest.
This is all a little cryptic as I’m still refining what I’m planning to study, but suffice to say I’ve found a way to study something in which I’ve had a lifelong fascination. For me, the trick with school has always been to find a way to make it personally meaningful to me. The grind of papers and assigned readings can really wear you down, so I play a memory game with myself, summoning up relevant History Channel programs I saw a decade ago to help me contextualize whatever novel or history text I’m currently unraveling.
I’ve also been reading Ted Conover’s Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes. Published in the ’80s when Conover was only 24, Rolling Nowhere is the nonfiction account of his gutsy anthropology project to embed himself in hobo culture one summer. I had previously read Newjack: Guarding Sing-Sing, a book Conover wrote after serving for a prison guard for a year. Compared to Conover’s seasoned reporter’s voice in Newjack, he sounds, for lack of a better explanation, like someone in his twenties. There’s a certain earnestness in his literary references to Kerouac and The Wizard of Oz, a certain awkwardness to occasional phrases, that excites me. “I could write like this,” I thought as I finished Chapter 1.
Today, I managed to read half the book during a three-hour lull at work, and I realized just how impressive Rolling Nowhere really is. Not only did Conover reproduce large blocks of quotations in dialect, but the book is the accumulation of a million tiny details. Many of these undoubtedly came from the journals he kept while he rode the rails, but I imagine his journaling had to be reasonably discreet lest others become suspicious of him. Additionally, it took remarkable courage to forsake the comfortable environment to which he was accustomed, not to mention his unjust arrest and night in jail in his own hometown of Denver.
I also connected something I stumbled upon last week completely by accident. While hiking, I was writing the post in my head and opened up an app on my phone to jot down a few notes. The first thing I wrote was my mood: “content and happy.” Later, when I wrote the post, I had been on the phone for a few hours and was trying to finish by a reasonable hour so that I could sleep before work the next day. Bogged down in the logistics of daily life, the ebullient mood that had prompted me to write that note had dissipated throughout the course of the week. I didn’t feel discontent or unhappy, but I realized for the first time the difficulty of capturing emotions in retrospect. In the wake of this realization, Conover’s description of feeling sadness was particularly striking:
The train wound its serpentine way up into the mountains. I planted my feet firmly near the doorway and looked out over the plains, doing an about-face to see out the other door every time the train did a hairpin turn and changed direction. Denver sparkled with the variously colored lights of buildings, houses, and streets, and all of a sudden I felt very sad. Back there were cops and the jail but also, a million times more important, back there was my family. In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which I had read over the summer, I had been struck by the frequent use of the word “sad” to describe almost anything connected with his travels – the “sad highway,” the “sad town,” the “sad American night.” Why, I had wondered, did it have to be sad? Life on the road for me had always been adventuresome, unpredictable, exciting, more fun than sad. But tonight, the sad made sense. It could have been used to describe almost anything around me – the city view, the boxcar, the mountains ahead. It was my sadness, the sadness of moving alone, to destinations unkown. And I realized that night what must be common knowledge among hoboes: it’s easier to be on the road when home is something you don’t feel too good about.
This passage synthesizes past emotions with epiphany. Conover wrote the book long after he felt these things, yet reading it, I felt as though he was discovering them for the first time. The only way I can think of accomplishing this is by dutiful journaling. But what if a journal is lost or stolen, as must happen frequently? Reading how fresh these thoughts feel even years after they occurred to Conover for the first time, it seems obvious to me that he has not only a great memory and a great sensibility for how people in general think through their feelings.
So, could I write a book by the age of 24? Only time will tell. Hopefully my thesis will turn into a professional blog or manuscript during my post-grad summer. To some, these goals undoubtedly seem arrogant, but my optimism depends on ignoring the potential for failure. If everyone knew how difficult it was to write a book, I doubt anyone would even try. The worst thing that can happen is failure, and I already know that like everyone, I have a fair share of unavoidable failure ahead of me. I do know that right now, tonight, I’m not nearly sophisticated enough as a writer or frankly as a human to write what Conover wrote. But someday, maybe.
The more I talk to people, the more contacts keep popping up out of the woodwork. Moral of the story: Don’t wait until you’re “ready” to start talking to people about what you want out of life. That’s not something I figured out on my own, but some good advice from one of my college advisors, and it’s brought me into some incredibly helpful conversations so far. I don’t think I’ll ever find myself in a satisfied, finished, utterly polished state, and for now the scrambling is exhilarating and the stumbling is instructive.
On another note, according to a Ben and Jerry’s tweet, today is national ice cream day. I unwittingly celebrated earlier this evening when I stress-ate a Cookout shake. I also learned that during a period of depression and drug induced-paranoia, Elliott Smith ate practically nothing but ice cream. Rolling Nowhere always triggers Smith’s “Going Nowhere” in my mind, so I’ll leave you with that and the hope that with all that’s been developing in my life recently, I’m going somewhere – slowly, incrementally – after all.