Reflections on Being a Minor Character
Joyce Johnson (seen here, appropriately out-of-focus, in an image later used for a Gap ad) is perhaps best known for once dating Jack Kerouac, the writer who inspired many young English majors to come to Columbia and NYC. This year, she will publish the most comprehensive-and accurate-biography of Kerouac to date. But more than a famous ex-girlfriend and careful chronicler, Johnson is a great writer. Her memoir Minor Characters, about being on the fringes of the Beat Movement in the 1960s, as well as growing up in New York City, has proven the ideal springboard for my own reflections on graduating, New York, and my friendships.
I often find that when I write in this style of automatic writing, striving for instantaneous brilliance or at least comprehensibility, the hardest part is figuring out what to write when because my brain gets over-full with ideas, and I want them to be mostly cohesive, but sometimes a tangent will slip out which is good I guess but also there’s the problem of the ones that slip away, the pre-verbal images or whatever you call them of something that could have been great but as soon as you start writing they fade and writhe away from you and you’re left with a shadow of all the things your mind wanted you to say with such urgency just a moment ago. And I guess in a way it can be a good thing because then there’s an added element, a second voice to your writing, if you will, that’s like chance or luck or providence or the environment, that is the space between your fingers and your mind, influencing those thoughts that make it through and the way you can convey them and in all of the things you lose between the honesty of your brain and the honesty of your written word is an element over which you have no control. So it’s partly yours but never entirely you. Or maybe better writers don’t experience this and eventually are able to reach a point where their communication is perfect, flawless, intentionally unintentional. But there is something about this process of writing, the fear of leaving something out, the focus on one moment or idea that shines more brightly than others, that feels so familiar when reading Minor Characters, because I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of memory writing and memoir writing and how you could ever really fully write a life, especially your own life.