“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up in your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.”
— Jack London
I like to imagine a very young Jack London following the gold rush, traveling by boat to the Klondike, writing down everything he thought, everything he saw, everything he felt, in his notebook.
It’s said that he wrote 1000 words a day, long hand, nearly every day of his adult life.
His first short story, “To Build a Fire,” written in his early 20s, is still considered one of his best.
I‘ve kept notebooks for the last three years. One a year. Not quite journals, because I don’t do much reflective writing in them. (That’s what my posts here are for.) Just ideas. Lists. “Every stray thought that flutters up in” my brain.
Here’s some footage of London, taken just before his death at age 40 in 1916.
One thing that this project has taught me already, less than twenty days in, is that when you scratch below the surface — when you look beyond the work you’ve fallen in love with — there is almost always some imperfection. Sometimes devastating imperfection as I found with Coco Chanel and Marion Zimmer Bradley.
London had ideas about race — especially about the ‘Yellow Peril’ of Asian migration to California during his lifetime — that are disturbing. He also often wrote highly empathetic non-white characters.
Sometimes, when he wrote about race, it makes me think of that one weird uncle who makes everyone uncomfortable — and even more uncomfortable the harder he tries to prove that he’s not a racist.
Here’s what he wrote about a 1910 fight between Jack Johnson, a black man, and Jim Jeffries, often called the Great White Hope.
what . . . [won] on Saturday was bigness, coolness, quickness, cleverness, and vast physical superiority… Because a white man wishes a white man to win, this should not prevent him from giving absolute credit to the best man, even when that best man was black. All hail to Johnson.
Jack London lived life at full speed, running at it head on. He died young, only 40, of a strange mix of late stage alcoholism, infections caught during tropical travel, kidney failure, and a (probably) accidental overdose of morphine.
I wonder if he used his notebooks and his copious stories to work through the deeply troubling parts of himself.
“You may wonder why I am a pessimist. I often wonder myself. Here I have the most precious thing in the world — the love of a woman; I have beautiful children; I have lots and lots of money; I have fame as a writer; I have many men working for me; I have a beautiful ranch — and still, I am a pessimist. I look at things dispassionately, scientifically, and everything appears almost hopeless; after long years of labor and development, the people are as bad off as ever. There is a mighty ruling class that intends to hold fast to its possessions. I see years and years of bloodshed. I see the master class hiring armies of murderers to keep the workers in subjection, to beat them back should they attempt to dispossess the capitalists. That’s why I am a pessimist. I see things in the light of history and the laws of nature.” (From a 1913 interview.)
One thing that is known, for certain, is that Jack London was one of the first real celebrity authors. He was the first American author to earn a million dollars from his work during his lifetime.
The Call of the Wild and White Fang, especially, brought him both fame and fortune. His less well-known novel The Iron Heel helped to define the modern science fiction genre and inspired George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.
London’s Beauty Ranch, in the Sonoma Valley of California, is now a state park. I write pretty often about how any day job can be done in service to your creative work. It’s interesting to me that at the end of his life, London’s day job was writing. He wrote in service to his ranch, which he called Beauty.
In a 1914 newspaper interview, he said, “I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate.”
I’ve added The Iron Heel to my reading list for 2019.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.