When I was twenty-two, I was lucky enough to be the only South African on an American college campus, studying creative writing and trying to figure out what to do with my life (along with every other college student, it seems). One chilly fall day, I signed up for a course that unwittingly changed my life: an in-depth seminar on Jack Kerouac.
I had read On the Road, of course, and loved Kerouac’s fiery writing style – I had even copied out one of his quotes to stick on my bedroom wall as a reminder to live in full colour:
“The only people for me are the mad ones: the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
But still something gnawed at me, something more intense than the usual college malaise… I could not decide which of two directions to take my life in. At the time, I was a joint Creative Writing and Theater major, having come halfway across the world to America purely to follow my dream of becoming a movie star. I imagined that through movies I could change lives, having witnessed the transformative power of a two-hour reprieve from reality. But at the same time, the books I read, immersed in my college career, offered me something so much more meaningful – life-changing that lasted beyond the end credits.
And so I started my semester of Kerouac, taught by the most potent of professors: a heavily tattooed Russian Orthodox priest who spoke Medieval English and hung out with bikers on the weekend. While reading all of Kerouac’s work, I quickly realised that I had found something of a kindred spirit. Preoccupied with how Kerouac expressed his spirituality in his work, I stumbled across one of the few remaining original copies of his American Haiku, somehow hidden in the stacks of my small liberal arts college on the East Coast. The experience felt destined: meant to be.
As I read, and re-read, and re-read again the simple but powerful haiku, they became part of my every day that semester… Walking through the changing leaves, as the days shortened and the seasons changed and the snow began to fall, I knew that what I really wanted to do was become a writer. To express, as Kerouac had done, his thoughts and feelings and deepest spirituality, with words.
“All day long
wearing a hat
that wasn’t on my head.”
“Snap your finger
stop the world –
rain falls harder.”
And my personal favourite:
sleeping on this flower –
your light’s on.”
Lessons about life, and joy, how to see the world and even more importantly, how to translate it.
I may have only been twenty-two years old, but that season Kerouac’s haiku changed my life.