m a r g i n a l i a

notes from a creative writing PhD candidate

jack kerouac’s “fifteen strange seconds”

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was–I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds.  I wasn’t scared, I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.  I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.”

— Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Sal Paradise experiences this epiphany in the beginning of On the Road, in chapter 3.  He’s young–just out of college, no job, truly on his own for the first time, and is in total awe of Dean’s bottomless energy and freedom.  Sal claims that this is the “one distinct time in his life” that he has experienced this suspended feeling–that shocking realization of the present, of time passing, of actually feeling yourself aging at that very moment.

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Perhaps it’s because he is only in his early 20s that he has this one-time, life-altering, fifteen-second insight, but as a twenty-seven-year-old, I can recall, gratefully and blissfully, at least four of these awakenings in my life,  stretching all the way back to age eighteen–and all experienced while traveling.  [Paris, France, 2005; Berlin, Germany, 2007; Zilina, Slovakia, 2010; Mexico City, Mexico, 2014.]

Fifteen strange seconds.  Travel–and, on rare occasions, a truly great book–pulls this recognition out of us.  In stunning detail I can recall moments in Montmartre or Condesa or while reading The Dharma Bums for the first time when I felt that dividing line between who I was and who I was becoming.  A shift.  An alacrity.  It’s one of my favorite things about Kerouac’s writing: his ability to remind me of my own collection of those fifteen strange seconds.

Joan Didion, in her brilliant essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” laments that “I’ve already lost touch with a couple of people that I used to be.”  Perhaps this is why we write, whether fiction or nonfiction, in blogs or journals: to not lose touch, to always remember those fleeting, seemingly insignificant moments and the cracked ceilings and the dress we were wearing and all the sad sounds.

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