Recently, while my son was on his spring break, we took a little road trip, just the two of us, up to Northern California. He was curious to see Jack London’s Wolf House after it played a role in one of the Percy Jackson novels he’s been reading.
Jack London’s Wolf House
For those of you who aren’t up on your Jack London (or Percy Jackson) trivia, the Wolf House was Jack London’s dream home. He began construction in 1911, just outside the small town of Glen Ellen, and finished it in August of 1913. By all accounts it was spectacular. But the day after it was completed, it burned to the ground. All that is left are the stone foundations (which London, who had lived through the great quake of 1906, had paid to have built extra thick and strong).
While Jack apparently had every intention of rebuilding, his wife wrote later that the disaster left him devastated. When he died suddenly in 1916, the reconstruction had not begun and his wife decided to leave the ruins and focus on a new structure (built completely of stone, even the roof tiles were adobe) for herself to live in.
A Superb Meteor
As we wondered around the museum I noticed a quote from London:
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of a man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.
He lived large, seeking adventure and writing about it and I’ll admit, I had a little twinge of regret. Because I’ve chosen a life that, while not devoid of adventure, is much more stable. Over the years I quit smoking, drinking and doing drugs. These days I meditate and do yoga on a regular basis. In my head, Jack London was snickering. I was missing the whole point of life and what kind of writer could I possibly be if I wasn’t throwing caution to the wind at every turn?
This idea nagged at me throughout the day as my boy and I walked the grounds of the Jack London State Park and later, as we drove across the Gold Gate Bridge into San Francisco. It was still nagging at me the next day when we set out to walk past Union Square, through Chinatown, up to Coit Tower and over to Ghirardelli Square where we got ice cream.
As I was sitting in the sun with my boy, drinking a fantastic chocolate milkshake, I noticed another quote on the window of a cheese company:
The only reason I workout is to live longer so I can eat more cheese and drink more wine.
Yes! This little shard of wisdom was credited to Ricky Gervais and it got me thinking. Jack London died at age 40. (40!) Yes, he managed to write dozens of books in his life, but think of the dozens more he might have written if he hadn’t ate and drank and smoked himself to death. Ricky Gervais is almost 60 and still cracking people up.
These days, the only people I hear echoing London’s live-fast-die-young mentality are rebellious adolescents and drug-addled individuals looking to excuse their own bad behavior. (I say this with love, having once been both adolescent and drug-addled.) I remember that feeling of passionate desperation, that sense of wanting to be a meteor flashing across the sky.
But there is wisdom in thinking past tomorrow. As writers, there is no pressure to do our best work while we’re still young. Unlike professional athletes and mathematicians, our work only gets better with age. According to this chart, we seem to hit our stride somewhere between the ages of 30 and 40. Sleepy planets (as London called those of us who have the gall to live past 40) have been around long enough to have some perspective on things and sometimes (if we gain some mastery of our craft) that shows through in our stories.
What’s more, alcohol and drugs do our writing more harm than good. Sure, some well-timed inebriation might spark and idea now and then, and yes, there have been a few writers who produced amazing work while out of their gourds on something or another, but writing is work and a clear head will always be more productive than one that’s foggy with intoxicants (or the pursuant hangover).
I’m 43 years old and only published my first book last year. I have so many stories I want to tell. I hope to be writing until the day I die and the further off that day is, the more books I’ll be able to squeeze out. So I take care of myself. And truth be told, I don’t miss hangovers. I don’t miss drunken fights or trying to remember which bar I left my credit card at last night. It’s much more satisfying to get up every morning and write.