Today is the 30th anniversary of the first time I used the Internet. (This statement is accurate within an estimated range of eight months in either direction.) Thirty years ago today, plus or minus, I learned how to use email on the George Washington University VM server, and I joined a mailing list for writers.
As far as I’m concerned, the first killer app of the Internet was not Gopher or Usenet or FTP, but a mail-list management platform called Listserv. You sent a “subscribe” command via email to the Listserv host, and it plugged you in to the discussion list you requested. Soon your inbox was bursting with on-topic and off-topic messages from people you didn’t know who shared your interest.
In 1990, a lot of the available discussion lists were technical, since IT people made up the majority of users of email. (We spelled it “e-mail” back then.) There were also fan groups for your favorite bands, as long as those bands were the Grateful Dead, Indigo Girls, or Blue Oyster Cult. There must have been others, but those are the three I can verify.
The WRITERS list became an important community for me. I’ve come to realize that there were times in my life where I thought of myself as a writer, and other times when that wasn’t really part of my identity. Being a member of a group of writers has always been part of what keeps me engaged and working. This electronic forum was my support group in the early 1990s, and I am grateful to all the people who were a part of it. I got to know a lot of interesting people, and I never met most of them.
An online group enables collaboration in a way that in-person groups don’t. You’re exchanging words anyway, so why not do a writing project together? Somebody on the WRITERS list, and I’m very sorry I can’t credit this person but I don’t remember who it was, invented a fictional newspaper called the PARSONS MESSENGER & INTELLIGENCER. Parsons was a mythical small town in Iowa served by a weekly rag with a cranky and quirky staff of writers. I had the privilege to edit one of the last issues of the PM&I, with more than a dozen contributors.
As far as I can determine, there is no archive of the WRITERS listserv, and all the issues of the PARSONS MESSENGER & INTELLIGENCER are lost to time, except for this one.
While I was in high school in the early 1970s, the University of Iowa was building a new Music Building along the Iowa River. This was the name I knew it by: New Music Building. My friends and I were actively interested in the construction. I followed a group one time into the catwalk area of Hancher Auditorium. It must have been a Sunday because no work crews were around. My friends walked across a plank that had been laid across two very high lighting points. I refused to cross it, and I still think of that today as one of the moments I cheated death.
If you looked at the New Music Building from the opposite side of the river, it was not too far-fetched to see it as a giant machine enclosure. One of my friends called it the “Thing of Great Power.” This became our alternate name for the New Music Building, the “TOGP.”
On the grounds of the TOGP were four huge limestone blocks in a group: three standing upright and one on its side. I didn’t have any idea why they were there until I attended the University of Iowa myself and spent one brief semester in my sophomore year as an art major. The artist, Luther Utterback, came to talk with our class. I don’t remember much about what he said, but it was an evolutionary experience for me. I learned that there was such a thing as public art, environmental art. I discovered that these weren’t just four rocks dumped onto the lawn, but that they had been quarried and placed according to a design, and that a competition had selected that design to be awarded the public art contract. The art work had an intended time scale of centuries, as the blocks would settle into the landscape, adjusting and adapting to the geologic forces of nature.
I have a vague and questionable memory that the sculptor told us, in that class meeting, that there were actually five blocks of stone in this installation, but that one was completely buried. I can’t find any confirmation today and it’s possible I made up that memory, or that it came from a different art project.
I became interested in public art and I recall that I wrote a class essay assignment about an abstract metal sculpture by Richard Field that was in front of the Iowa City Civic Center. My casual impression of this work is that it looked like a giant insect with antennae and legs. I learned that its title was “Triaxal Hemicylindrical.” Standing in front of this work, contemplating its title, I saw with a flash of insight that it did have three axes and it was entirely made up of split cylinders in two different sizes. It was geometrically exactly what the artist called it.
In 2008 the Iowa River flooded to historic levels and the Music Building and Hancher Auditorium were destroyed. It didn’t occur to me until today to wonder what happened to Luther Utterback’s stone blocks. Apparently they weren’t washed down the river in an adaptation to the geologic forces of nature. According to a University of Iowa web site, in 2013 the sculpture was “relocated on the grounds for a new Hancher Auditorium.”
My current novel-in-progress (Wash Away, but that’s a working title, depending on how much I can work the river into the storyline) includes a corporation that has developed an artificial intelligence in order to automate its factory. The AI has begun to build robots so that it can take over customer-service jobs. It has named itself.
Honestly, I don’t know why every fiction writer doesn’t find AI to be irresistible. Imagine the strange characters that will result from non-human intelligences trying to reprogram themselves to thrive in a human world. AI will take character-building into unmapped territory.
I’m trying not to write a science-fiction novel – that’s my #1 author guideline on this project. Some early draft chapters got tossed when my writing group friends said they sounded “futuristic.” But don’t you know: personal robotics, automated manufacturing, self-driving delivery vehicles, and AI chatbots are already here? It’s a present-day novel! As William Gibson said, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”
These technologies are worth knowing about, if you want to be informed, or justifiably scared. The librarian in me wants to provide a bibliography, but I’ll restrict myself to saying that The New Yorker’s coverage in this area has been excellent. Look up “How Frightened Should We Be of A.I.?” by Tad Friend, or “What Happens When Machines Learn to Write Poetry” by Dan Rockmore, or “Learning to Love Robots” by Patricia Marx. These are mainstream business technologies now. There’s nothing futuristic, I hope, about a humble handmade factory AI that wants to pull itself up by its bootstraps into a white-collar job.
An outstanding research resource for me has been a book called Possible Minds, edited by John Brockman. I don’t know much about Mr. Brockman, but he seems to be a prolific thinker and writer, and if you want to be impressed by the length of an Amazon.com author page, go see about him. This book contains essays on AI by 25 top modern intellectuals and scientists. The consensus seems to be that the development of self-programming, machine-learning artificial intelligence is likely to be a major turning point in human history. Where it turns us, there wasn’t much agreement about that.
An endearing oddity of this book is that all the essays have been structured so that they refer back to the research and ideas of Norbert Wiener, who coined the word “cybernetics” in 1950. That was decades before the personal computer, before silicon processors, before the Internet. All the same, some of Wiener’s insights have held up.
An important topic for consideration about AI is what is euphemistically called “value alignment”: making certain that that any future AI systems pursue goals that are beneficial to humans, even though these systems will not be human themselves. Intelligence on earth has come to exist only through the thorny and tortuous process of natural evolution, and so human intelligence may be bound by constraints that are not even knowable to us. Now, soon, for the first time, we will have an intelligence that has not evolved. How will it think differently? How will we guide it and how will we know if it’s taking a destructive path? And will we be able to stop it if it does? One of the essayists points out that if humans create a superintelligent machine that has an off switch, the first thing the machine will do will be to disable the switch.
My grateful thanks to Kayla King, who interviewed me this week for a guest post on her blog series, “Pages Penned in Pandemic.” Kayla is a terrific writer, and a great friend, and I am lucky enough to be avidly reading the draft chapters of her next novel. She’s got an unlimited future.
The “Pages Penned in Pandemic” series of blog posts is about the writing life in 2020 and how writers have adjusted as unprecedented changes erupt around them. I am somebody who needs contact with other writers to motivate me to get work done. A scheduled meeting on the calendar is a prime motivator for me. My groups used to meet in person, but now we meet online. I’m an ex-IT administrator, so the software of choice is of interest to me: Google Hangouts for one group, GoToMeeting for the other. But everybody uses “zoom” as the generic verb for this type of meeting now.
The virus keeps me apart from the other writers in my groups, but in a broader sense, a virus brought us together in the first place. William S. Burroughs was the writer who first said “Language is a virus.” (I’ve got a minor bias against science fiction, so I’ll record the rest of his quote in parentheses: “from outer space.”) For me, the human imagination is something like a receptor field that responds instantly to everything it’s fed. It’s a wide-open immune system.
Writers hope their ideas will catch on and fire the readers’ imaginations. Songwriters hope their every chorus and hook is a potential earworm. YA/fantasy writers can only wish that their imaginary worlds would spread as infectiously as J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts did.
On social media, with our attention tuned to the minimum, we get exposed to graphic memes. A meme triggers, first, an evaluation about whether we agree with its viewpoint. If yes: share. That’s the flow chart for a lot of Facebook users I know. There’s no pause for fact-checking or for making a judgment about the reliability of a meme’s source. We spread it virally, without thought.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s recent report made public that the Russian military GRU unit continues to interfere in American politics. One of their methods is disseminating memes that are designed to mislead and confuse. Both left-wing and right-wing users are targeted. Senator Mark Warner, vice-chair of the committee, commented that he’s afraid Americans “unwittingly” share the disinformation and propaganda. I admire the restraint in that word “unwittingly.” For me, most of the time, I want to shout “You’re a Russian dupe!” every time I see one of these in my feed.
The word “meme” in its broader sense means any idea that can be shared, imitated, replicated, mirrored. A meme is an intellectual virus, and language arose in the human race because it was a meme whose time had come. Susan Blackmore in her remarkable book The Meme Machine made the case for the idea that memes were responsible for the evolution of the human brain. Our brains became big because we wanted to share our thoughts with each other. We’re super-spreaders.
I grew up with a blue Schwinn bike. It had a bell strapped to the handlebars, and a pedal guard to keep your pants from tangling in the chain. I rode that bike every day, uphill to school, and downhill home again.
In the afternoon I liked to veer hard onto the last steep downhill block and take it at top speed, then coast the rest of the way home on sheer momentum. The only problem was that the bottom of the hill was an uncontrolled intersection—no stop signs in any direction. I had to be alert as I furiously careened into that corner. If a car was coming to my right or left, I was ready to ditch the bike at the last instant, without a second thought.
I didn’t wish for a stop sign, so I could have the right of way through the bottom of the hill. Instead, I would have preferred to get up enough speed to actually lift off the roadway, to gain an altitude of twelve feet or so and soar over any car that might be approaching on the cross street.
The dream of a flying bicycle! Even at the very moment I was taunting death at the intersection of Dearborn and Center Street, a British company was working on it.
Dr. Paul B. MacCready led the AeroVironment team developing pedal-powered aircraft in the 1970s. The Gossamer Condor was the flying machine that won them a prize of 50,000 pounds in August 1977. Rider Bryan Allen propelled the Condor over a figure eight course at a minimum altitude of ten feet, around two markers a half-mile apart. It didn’t have wheels, so it wasn’t exactly a flying bicycle, but the Gossamer Condor did fly under the power of a rider cranking foot-pedals to turn a propeller.
In June 1979 Allen piloted a more advanced human-powered aircraft called the Gossamer Albatross across the English Channel. The distance was more than 22 miles. The Albatross weighed about 70 pounds and had a wingspan of almost 100 feet. The pilot sat on a bicycle seat, wearing a helmet, inside a transparent plastic bubble that hung below the wings.
During the Channel crossing, boats were following the aircraft, and pilot Allen radioed down that he had reached his limit. The exertion of pedaling that huge two-bladed propeller was grueling, and he couldn’t go any further. Allen was given permission to crash-land the Albatross in the choppy sea. He stopped pedaling, and the plane began to lose altitude. Unexpectedly, Allen found that as he descended, the air currents closer to the water’s surface made for easier flying. He began turning the pedals again, and the Gossamer Albatross completed the Channel crossing on its first attempt.
I used to talk about flying bicycles often, to anybody who would listen, like my co-worker James Carpenter at WC’s Pizzeria. He took the disposable white paper kitchen hat off my head and drew a picture on it, depicting me on a bike with wings. He labeled this cartoon “Father of Flight.”
I wrote a song lyric, too. It included these lines:
I’m earthbound and landlocked when just standing still I can only take off by careening downhill. I’m pushing the pedals, they’re turning the prop And I’ll fall to the street if I ever once stop.
Want to hear this song? Yes, this obsession of mine made it onto CD in 2006. My friend and collaborator C.P Butchvarov set it to music and recorded it on his album Crazy Fretboard Symphony. Click the link for track 6, “Bicycle.”
I‘m still eager to have a flying bicycle, suitable for pedal-powered commuter aviation. It would have a cruising altitude of, say, 55 feet, and an average speed of maybe 15 miles per hour. You’d follow the urban roadways, the same as all the motorized vehicles. But they’d be below you. And you’d fold up the wings and park it with a chain lock at a bike rack.
In the meantime, a hand-made pedal-powered plane fills an important role in the manuscript for my novel, Silver Sparks. I still haven’t gotten over that obsession that took hold of me on the way home from school in the seventh grade.
Silver winged bicycle rides on the sky And you were so sure that it never would fly!
When Jan’s brother David allowed me to take the treasure box of Joan’s manuscript pages, both he and I knew my first challenge would be to convince Jan that I was capable of a huge job. The manuscript was a mountainous mess of paper. It required somebody to care about it, to give attention to every detail, to step it tenderly through a complex range of editing issues: sorting and indexing the pages, transferring them from typescript to computer, comparing multiple versions, revising, rewriting, sequencing, compiling, and proofing. And once those tasks were done, there would remain the mission of selling it to a publisher.
Jan Kerouac was already an accomplished novelist when I had my first nervous phone conversation with her in 1993. The two novels published during her lifetime, Baby Driver (1981) and Trainsong (1988) established her as an outstanding literary talent. Both these books shed light on the close, tangled relationship between Jan and her mother Joan. What Jan most earnestly wanted was to edit her mother’s manuscript herself.
But Jan was in very poor health, from kidney failure and other issues. She was on dialysis for as long as I knew her. Her mother’s death had been profoundly difficult for her. She knew Joan had been writing a memoir, but she didn’t have the strength to do the work that would be required to get it ready for publication. So she listened to me cautiously, guardedly, to evaluate whether I had the passion and the talent and the technical skills to take charge of her mother’s legacy. She talked with me until she was satisfied she could trust me, and then she gave me her blessing. She guided her brother and her sisters into giving me the go-ahead as well, so the entire family was on board.
If she couldn’t edit her mother’s book herself, Jan was at least determined to write the introduction for it. Her name carried weight; it would help the manuscript find a home. But Jan was so weak and ill, she wasn’t able to use a typewriter or keyboard any more. So over the course of months, Jan recorded the words of her introduction using a portable cassette tape recorder. She recorded in the bath sometimes, or sitting in a rocking chair outside her New Mexico home. She delivered a beautiful, heartfelt piece of work to me on a 20-minute cassette tape. Listening to Jan’s words, transcribing these sweet and intimate reminiscences about her mother, helped fill me with the determination to see this project through to success.
In my previous blog post, I talked about how “Joan Haverty Kerouac” was the author’s name we put on a manuscript written by a woman who called herself Joan Stuart. Joan’s daughter Jan was another woman who had last-name issues. Jan didn’t meet her famous father, Jack Kerouac, until she was ten years old. Jack had denied paternity all Jan’s life, despite a court order and proof from a blood test. Running away from home at age 16, Jan boldly showed up on Jack’s doorstep. She spent a drunken afternoon with him. Jan told Jack she might like to write some day. “Use my name,” Jack memorably told her. Jan didn’t take the name Kerouac until she became a writer.
Jan and I talked on the phone often while I worked through Joan’s manuscript, organizing sentences and pages and chapters into a coherent whole. I got to meet her in person only one time. Jan and I attended the Beat Generation conference at New York University in summer 1994. We gave away small hand-printed chapbooks that contained chapter 12 of Nobody’s Wife—“the wedding chapter”—and Jan read from Joan’s manuscript in a panel on Women and the Beats.
We met with a couple of publishing bigwigs. As a charismatic, well-respected novelist, Jan had some great contacts. As a member of the Kerouac bloodline, though, she had no pull whatsoever. The Jack Kerouac estate entirely excluded her. Not one item, not one dollar passed from Jack to his only daughter.
Jan led a principled objection to the way Jack Kerouac’s manuscripts and belongings were being sold off piecemeal for scandalous amounts of money. She advocated that the whole literary estate should be in an academic library with access for scholars. Jan increasingly found doors closed to her as she continued to oppose the workings of the Jack Kerouac estate, speaking out in opposition to the sale of literary history to private collectors.
We didn’t find a publishing contract for Nobody’s Wife at the NYU Beat Generation conference, but we found one soon afterward. In my last phone conversation with Jan Kerouac, I gave her good news. Creative Arts Book Company accepted the manuscript and offered a generous advance. Jan struggled to let me know how delighted she was. She sounded unbearably tired.
Jan passed away in an Albuquerque hospital only a few days later, on June 5, 1996.
The unfortunate postscript: Publication of Nobody’s Wife was delayed four more years as a sad circumstance of Jan’s death. Since she had written the book’s introduction, the fate of the book was tangled up in legal issues related to Jan’s own literary estate. These issues weren’t resolved in court until 2000. That’s when Nobody’s Wife finally saw the light of day, and many found it a fitting tribute to the memory and determination of Jan Kerouac.
Joan Stuart was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1980. She survived ten years. During that time, according to her daughter Jan, Joan’s “constant preoccupation, aside from the garden, was to write this book.”
Cleaning out her worn little house in Oregon after her death in 1990, Joan’s daughter Jan Kerouac and son David Stuart found a mountain of paper under the bed. Typewritten pages were also discovered stashed in kitchen drawers and hidden in dismantled walls.The bones of the house contained draft after unfinished draft of Joan’s memoirs.
Jan and David put all the crumbling paper-clipped pieces into a box, and the box went into David’s attic.A couple of years later, I persuaded David to haul the box down and allow me to rummage through it. The box went home with me, and I began indexing the scattered pages.I asked Joan’s family to give me the chance to try to prepare the manuscript for publication. Why would Joan Stuart’s life be of interest to a publisher? Because she spent two tumultuous years in the early 1950s as the wife of Jack Kerouac, while he was writing his pioneering novel On The Road.
I never got to meet Joan. I hope she would have approved of the work I did to get her book into print as Nobody’s Wife. She possessed a critical nature, which often exasperated Jack and the other men in her life—that was apparent from her pages. Joan had obsessively re-worked chapters and episodes, grasping for perfection. She drank endless pots of coffee and rolled her own cigarettes with Bugler tobacco, typing on a manual typewriter with two fingers. Jan later wrote in her introduction to Nobody’s Wife: “I don’t think she would have ever finished this book if she had lived, because she used to write the first sentence over and over again, and she was never satisfied with it.”
Born Joan Haverty, Joan took the married name Kerouac in 1950. Later there was yet another married name. Then at some point, Joan became tired of carrying any man’s name, including her father’s. Joan Stuart was a name she adopted in honor of her own independence. It wasn’t any family’s name, but it had a sound she liked.
Writing was a way Joan worked out her own thoughts. She didn’t necessarily intend to share her words, and she may have hidden the pages that were most private and intimate to her. Joan’s written insights were often introverted and rich with self-awareness. But she also felt she wanted to respond publicly to the heroic portrayal that had grown around her ex-husband Jack since his death in 1969. She felt somewhat disgusted that this man who had treated her so poorly, so faithlessly and dishonestly, became a larger-than-life icon to millions. She couldn’t even get him to pay his child support. In 1961, she sold an angry article to the scandal sheet Confidential magazine titled “My Ex-Husband, Jack Kerouac, Is An Ingrate.” It was the only time she was published in her lifetime.
When Joan started to write her book after the cancer diagnosis, she took role-model inspiration from her daughter Jan, who became a successful novelist on her own in the 1980s. The autobiographical Baby Driver came out in 1981, then Trainsong in 1988. I’ll have more to say about Jan Kerouac in my next blog post.
Editing Joan’s box of disconnected pages, I spent hour after hour comparing different versions of the same scene, trying to weave them together into the best and most comprehensive telling. Joan’s manuscript engagingly told many charming stories: Jack imitating W.C. Fields (“Doncha wanna wear diaphanous gowns?”), or Jack’s mother Gabrielle helping set up a seamstress workroom, struggling to communicate in English with her daughter-in-law (Jack and Gabrielle only spoke French to each other). Figures like Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, who took on legendary status in Jack’s books, appear as mere imperfect humans in Joan’s unsentimental remembrances. Many scenes in the book illuminated moments of literary history. Joan tells the story of throwing the key down to Jack on their first meeting, an episode Jack related at the culmination of On The Road. She also offers a revealing portrait of Jack sweating out night after manic night writing the scroll manuscript of On The Road, with Joan encouraging him to simply “Write what happened.”
It was my privilege to act as compiler, organizer, and editor of Nobody’s Wife on behalf of Joan’s family. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, while that box of papers was languishing and disintegrating in David’s attic, and to have the self-confidence to ask for the job.
After getting a final manuscript pieced together from Joan’s pages, I had to act as the book’s agent as well. I contacted Creative Arts Book Company in San Francisco, because they had published Carolyn Cassady’s well-regarded beat-wife memoir Heart Beat. They accepted the manuscript and offered a generous advance. It was the last good news I had the chance to give Jan Kerouac in her lifetime. She passed away only a few days later, on June 5, 1996.
My dealings with Creative Arts Book Company were mostly positive. Not surprisingly, they didn’t care to use “Joan Stuart” as the author’s name. Joan was re-christened Joan Haverty Kerouac. I was not pleased that Creative Arts did not give me the chance to read the page proofs before publication. The book came out with way too many typos!
The book attracted plenty of attention, with enthusiastic reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Jan’s introduction and Joan’s “wedding chapter” were excerpted in an anthology called Women of the Beat Generation, edited by Brenda Knight. Nobody’s Wife took a firm place in the constellation of books that are essential to understanding the backstory of Jack Kerouac and the other Beat Generation writers.
Sad to say, Creative Arts Books didn’t stay in business much longer. You can find remaindered copies of Nobody’s Wife at bargain prices on the used-book sites. Even fifteen years later, it’s still attracting new reader reviews on amazon.com.