This is a essentially an expansion of my last Progress Report.
I’m ten and a half years now into my memoir, Street Song. It’s been ten and a half years of constant work, so obviously it’s been a difficult project. Why take so many years out of one’s life to talk about the past? That’s something I’m still trying to come to grips with. It’s been some comfort to know that there are people eager to read the book. What I want to do here is to explain at some length what I’m trying to do and where I am in the process.
What am I trying to do? The book began with an image I had of myself sitting on the porch of an SRO hotel in North Beach watching people pass by me. I’d had that image for several years before I started work. When I finally started writing, the book went elsewhere, which has always struck me as peculiar. But books write themselves. If you struggle to take it in a direction that your conscious mind prefers, all you encounter is endless conflict. I’d been trying to keep the finished manuscript at around 350 pages, but I see now that it’s going to be longer. I understand why. I was born into a very conventional family in middle America, but I’ve ended up—philosophically, spiritually, intellectually, psychologically, whatever word you want to use—far, far from there. The book traces the nuances of that development. Nothing I say about anything will be understandable or believable unless I show the twists and turns. It’s not that I’ve arrived at some quirky individual mindset that I think might make entertaining reading. I write because, while traveling a highly unusual path, I discovered some fundamental realities that are universally true and have been either forgotten or consciously dismissed by the modern world. They are not my ideas. I believe that if we don’t get back to them we are doomed.
Where am I in the process? I had to do a lot of research before I could even begin writing. I’ve seldom kept any kind of journal, so I had to piece together my past. It was laborious. The research continues to this day—although there is much less to do. When I finally started on the manuscript, I wrote a quick, moderately long first draft. The second draft was nearly 1,000 pages, which I knew was much more than I would ever use. My approach was inspired by the Chinese sage Lao-tse: “If we wish to compress something, we must first let it fully expand.” So now I’m on the third and final draft. I have an outline that calls for 48 chapters—although that could get cut down as I move through the manuscript. I’ve completed the first 14 chapters, which I call Section One and regard as the foundation for the rest of the book. It took a long time to find the right balance and compression to build that foundation. I’ve finished Chapter 15, the beginning of “the rest of the book,” and, as I hoped, the writing has sped up considerably. I’m able to bring my Draft Two material straight across and focus on editing it down to a reasonable length. That wasn’t possible with the first fourteen chapters. I’m optimistic that I can go on a roll now. I need to get this book off my plate.