Writng Hippie Novels, Then and Now
Starting Out In The Sixties
Writing From Life
I don't remember what first made me think about writing stories, but it happened around the time I was thirteen or fourteen, long before hippie books were possible (since we didn't have hippies yet) and was far more ambitious than anything I thought about before.
The work so far:
I was inspired by All Fall Down by James Leo Herlihy, at least in part because it was about teenagers and written in an unassuming vernacular – which gave me the idea that I could do it too, even if the idea didn't coalesce until later.
All I remember about my first attempt is that it involved interracial romance and that I ran out of steam after a few thousand words. Many failures to finish followed, but I kept trying. And I started writing poetry, which, I was happy to discover, girls liked.
I kept a now lost spiral notebook with my poems handwritten on the lined pages. Few people ever read them and my family seemed to think it was just one more piece of evidence about how crazy I was likely to become. And I kept trying to put whole novels together.
Encouraged by a couple of teachers who took time on the side to help, I learned that a key to good writing was in reading plenty of good writers, absorbing everything, learning the ropes and the limits. Like most people my age, I loved J. D. Salinger, starting with Catcher In The Rye and ending with whatever it was he tried to do with Seymour Glass before he stopped publishing. I tried so hard to copy the Salinger of Holden Caulfield that imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it also guarantees dissatisfaction and failure.
I'll save for a blog post – or more likely a few – the many writers I learned to love and/or struggle with. For this short introduction, I'll stick with the giants that never wrote enough to satisfy my apetite for their work. The first to hit me was Henry Miller. Then, later, I was lucky to find and fall in love with Saul Bellow.
Miller was a wild ride. He not only knocked me completely off the style of everything I'd written so far, he had a similar effect on my life. Reading Tropic of Cancer, then Capricorn, I ingested ideas that changed both permanently. I couldn't go back. Fortunately, this happened in the 1960s and the field was fertile and horizon wide.
What Miller convinced me was the importance of writing straight from the heart, writing autobiography as a fictional technique. That is, let your own experience give you the structure, then fill it up with fiction to make it even better than it was. What mattered most, ultimately,was that I learned from Miller to live with passion, adventure and as much freedom as you can get away with. That's what you're here for, whether you write about it or not. Of course, I had to write about it.
Don't read that too simply. Rambling through life in pursuit of your most immediate desires will waste a lot that isn't immediate or easy to understand. The first thing to learn is who you are. Then, you get some idea about how to live and why.
Along came Saul Bellow. After consuming as much Miller as I could find in libraries and bookstores, I found other writers almost unreadable. It was like recovery from a first love. The next does not come easily. When I found Saul Bellow, it took me away because, unlike Miller who was essentially a middle class infidel like me, I had nothing in common with Bellow, except the passions. Also, unlike Miller and almost everyone else I read, I didn't think for a minute that I could write like or as well as him. The best I could do was learn.
I can hardly describe the voyage into alternate realities it was to sit with Herzog or Humboldt for an afternoon. I never dropped acid, but who needed it. No drug could take me any farther than Bellow did, just in another dimension.
Gore Vidal wrote that Bellow never wrote anything that wasn't autobiography. That made it more intense, to be let inside this great man's life, as far as I wanted to go. Since he lived mostly in a world of intellectuals and literary elites, I got a free ride into worlds I'd never have visited otherwise.
Two of the few things between book covers that have stayed with me every waking moment since I read them came from Saul Bellow. Both were universal truths, as true for me as a raw teenager who'd eventually write hippie books as it was for him. As he brought Moses Herzog's scrambled passions to settling point, Bellow put his hero alone in a room as he reached the transcendental moment for understanding that whatever it was that made oranges orange and grass green, it made people give off warmth. There was no escaping humanness, no matter how muddy or painful runaway emotions made it.
Bellow's heroes made their discoveries alone, not in conversation. In the final pages of Mr. Sammler's Planet, old Sammler prays over the body of his dead friend Ilya Gruner and meditating about doing the right things in life, he offered no escape in ignorance: "For that is the truth of it, God, that we know, we know."
My first finished novel was Peter McCarthy, a story that borrowed some ideas from both All Fall Down and The Graduate, was done by writing all night while my girlfriend was away at work. The big takeaway from it was that when I left behind the idea of writing completely made up stories, I took Peter with me. He burst back on the scene in Funny Music, a transitional novel I wrote on a bet and is still the main storyteller in my newest books.
Funny Music was transitional because I had to write it fast after my friend bet me he could finish a book before I could. I did mine in a month. He never got past the first chapter. Too bad, too, because he could write and hew as funnier, but he couldn't hold his breath as long as I could.
Read more about my hippie novels and see sample chapters by clicking on either title: