Is it possible for one girl to be in love with several men? More importantly, is it possible for her to be in love with several men who she knows will never love her back? It seems this is the predicament I find myself in. Several years ago I fell in love with a group of writers known as the Beats. They were outcasts, junkies, wanderers, standing for almost everything we were taught in grade school was wrong. In the words of founding writer Allen Ginsberg, the Beat Generation was “a rebellion against social form, a dissatisfaction with the stereotypes, thought forms and modes of thinking that we learned in grade school or something.” Much like the Lost Generation of the 1920s, they defined themselves as the Beat Generation, beat down and disillusioned by war and the tectonic cultural shifts that defined the 1940s-1970s.
So how did a girl like me, studious, careful and concerned with rules come to love a group of men like that?
I fell in love with Whitman first, just like they did. I’ve always been a romantic, both with a capital R and a lowercase one, and I was drawn to the idealized notion that the trees somehow had secrets to whisper to us. That if we walked into the woods or onto the streets of our neighborhoods we might see others, see them fully and know them, with their complex stories and faded scars and intricate minds. I know that may not be true, but I still find myself relying on Whitman when I need reassurance. On the nights where the world seems both quiet and loud at the same time, lonely in its isolated pockets or the mornings where the entire world seems to be loafing on a leaf of summer grass, I turn to Walt Whitman. His words give me hope that in a world filled with danger and divisiveness, we might all ultimately want to know each other.
Next, I fell in love with a movie, with beautiful boys portraying these writers, who romanticized their history. They loved Whitman too because just like me they couldn’t find the rhyme or meter to save their lives.
I’ve always struggled to identify myself as a writer, often trapped in cages of genre and expectation. Rather than being a writer in the technical term, I fell in love with words first and foremost. I love the way they string together how they chase each other and change each other. That’s what I strove to do when I began writing, and still attempt to do now. I cherish words and chase them where they lead me.
I found these men who were doing the exact same thing, playing with all the ways they could string words together, the sounds they could make, translating music to prose then back again. They seemed to cherish words in the way that I did and chased them all the way across America then to India and Mexico and a dozen other places around the world. They documented each place with a rhythm that was truly their own. They shaped the genre and morphed it, marrying prose to poetry to memoir in a way I’d only dreamed of doing.
I found myself in pieces of this writing. In the way it fell off the page, haphazard and precise at the same time, in the way that it sounded both rhythmic and lyric to the point of being dizzying. However, I think I also loved them because they were everything I could never be. Me with my business-casual blazers and my color-coded calendars, a rule-follower overall. I could never smoke my days away or take off to find enlightenment without a clear itinerary. I like my plans, but reading about these people who defied all expectations provides a sort of balance. Even though their experiences were so different from my own, there is a sentiment in them, captured in the term “Beat” itself that I find not only relatable but encouraging. These men took the word “Beat” and turned it into a revolution, creating so much out of their torn world and it has gone on to last a lifetime. When they were beaten down and lonely they embraced it, searching within themselves and within every corner of the world for enlightenment. They didn’t fear taking off alone, with only a notebook and the turbulent thoughts in their mind, and that is something I am trying to learn from.
As much as I may love them, and may have found myself in the spaces between their lines of prose, I know I never would have found a place in their world. I may have been a muse or a mother, nothing more than a paper doll, like all the women in their stories. The Beat Generation had little room for women like me, women with opinion and words of their own to write. So I find myself in conflict, wondering how one girl could love so many men, especially when they will never love her back. I seek out the stories of these women, not just because I believe they need to be told, and critically so, but also because I wonder if they were in conflict too. I want to know how they managed, loving these men and living in a world that didn’t make enough space for them.