The Storyteller’s Art (according to Jack London)

Fleeing Hobo by Norman Rockwell......In past eras an image like this would not have been too far from the reality of life on the bum
Fleeing Hobo by Norman Rockwell……In past eras an image like this would not have been too far from the reality of life on the bum

To Build a Fire

In case you don’t know who Jack London was, just go backtrack a few years to your American Lit class in any basic English course. Chances are you will come across a story about the Alaskan frontier titled, To Build a Fire. That story was written by Jack London, based on his adventures and prospecting up on the Klondike trail way back at the end of the 19th century.

To Build a Fire was first published in 1902, then released in 1908 with a slightly different plot
To Build a Fire was first published in 1902.

More London

But there was a lot more to Jack than that one short story, for the man from the West Coast was a well-rounded traveler, hobo and adventurer. Unfortunately, he was also a very accomplished drinker, for like too many great writers, alcohol consumption killed him at age 40. Still, in his short time on the planet, the author from Oakland, California left numerous novels and short story collections for readers to consume, long after he passed away in 1916. Some of Jack’s best know novels include Call of the Wild, White Fang and The Sea Wolf.

The Road

One of my my favorite Jack London books is his hobo memoir, called The Road. Here, he recollects his rough and tumble days of the early 1890s before he went north on the Klondike Trail in search of wealth and gold. In The Road, Jack recounts the hard times brought on by the financial crisis of 1893 and how he survived the difficult times by riding trains, begging for a meal and trying to stay clear of the police, who were always throwing bums in jail. (Jack actually landed himself in jail and fortunately he recounts his jail time in The Road.)

The Storyteller’s Art

From The Road comes this little gem of a quote. “I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tall tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short story.” In order words Jack often had to lie his butt off in order to keep from starving to death. Times must have been quite difficult in those days, before it became commonplace for charitable groups to provide food and shelter for those without a place to live or food to eat.

More Words of Wisdom

Incidentally, Mark Twain, who had his own share of mis-adventures and times on the street, said the same basic thing quite succinctly. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” So does this mean that to be a successful story-writer, you need to drop out of school and devoid yourself of all worldly goods. Of course not, though the life of asceticism could give you some memorable life experiences to write about. Then again you don’t want to end up like Christopher McCandless, where you end up as the subject of a book (Into The Wild) rather than an author. But even in these early decades of the 21st century, there is a lot to say for taking risks both in lifestyles and written content.

Miners climbing Chilkoot Pass in 1898 on the way to the Klondike Gold Rush, from wikipedia
Miners climbing Chilkoot Pass in 1898 on the way to the Klondike Gold Rush, from wikipedia
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“I’m not homeless, I’m just on a cheap vacation.”

The quote in the title comes from a sign held out by a young couple, while pan-handling in Salt Lake City. I guess it all goes to say that how you define your own experience might determine how others view your activity. Nonetheless, being without a home or being a tramp is nothing new. Here’s a small selection of words illustrating what writers have experienced along these lines in the past.

Hitching Toward_Los_Angeles,_CA_8b31801u_original
A depression era photo of two travelers walking towards Los Angeles, photo by Dorothea Lange

Tramps

Tramps, hobos, bums, vagabonds, drifters, homeless people….no matter what you call them, there has always been a certain amount of admiration and mystique mixed in with contempt for these people of the streets and highways. Among writers, the road or the highway has been the proving ground for many a talented author. Being on the road probably won’t make you write any better, but it give you that special “outsider” status, which will allow you to look into the heart and soul of modern society with a fresh perspective. Following are a few quotes that explore this reality.

1. “Actors really should be tramps”. by Martin Milner

2. “I modeled my looks on the town tramp.” by Dolly Parton

3. “I tramp a perpetual journey.” Walt Whitman Song of Myself

4. “A man can sleep around, no questions asked, but if a woman makes nineteen or twenty mistakes she’s a tramp.” by Joan Rivers

5. “He cut short my request for something to eat, snapping out, “I don’t believe you want to work.” Now this was irrelevant. I hadn’t said anything about work. The topic of conversation I had introduced was “food.” In fact, I didn’t want to work. I wanted to take the westbound overland that night.” by Jack LondonThe Road
6. “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” by Eleanor Roosevelt

7. “Tramps like us, Baby we were born to run” by Bruce Springstein

8. “Tramping is too easy with all this money . My days were more exciting when I was penniless and had to forage around for my next meal… I’ve decided that I’m going to live this life for some time to come. The freedom and simple beauty of it is just too good to pass up.” by Christopher McCandless,

9. “Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except heaven & hell & I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.” by Mark Twain

10. “Perhaps the greatest charm of tramp-life is the absence of monotony……. The hobo never knows what is going to happen the next moment;” hence, he lives only in the present moment.”
by  Jack London, The Road

11. “Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but in their own sight they are sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but soon or late he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.” by H.L. Mencken

12. “A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow always hopeful of romance and adventure.” by Charlie Chaplin

13. “Girls who put out are tramps. Girls who don’t are ladies. This is, however, a rather archaic usage of the word. Should one of you boys happen upon a girl who doesn’t put out, do not jump to the conclusion that you have found a lady. What you have probably found is a lesbian.” by Fran Lebowitz

14. “We fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. We were on the roof of America and all we could do was yell, I guess—across the night, eastward over the Plains, where somewhere an old man with white hair was probably walking toward us with the Word, and would arrive any minute and make us silent.” by Jack Kerouac, On the Road

15. “Only the large cities attempted anything in the way of identification. The Bertillion system was in the experimental stage and fingerprinting unknown in police work. We jumped from one state to another, kept away from the cities, lived almost entirely on the road except in the dead of winter, and spent our money in the jungles…” by Jack Black from You Can’t Win

Old Route 66 in Albuquerque, NM...photo by author
Old Route 66 in Albuquerque, NM…photo by author