Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Mad Ones Revisted

Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher. ~ Flannery O’Connor

When I was a freshman at the University of Kentucky, way back in 1964, I had a marvelous English teacher. His name was McCrown; he was young, maybe 25 or so; he had a stunning long red beard; and he drove a striking, British racing green MGA that turned me on to sports cars even more than my high school friend’s red Corvette.

He also turned me on to writers Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack Kerouac. Camus’ The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus taught me about Existentialism and “the freedom of the condemned man”—once we have accepted our own death, then we are free of all the worries and encumbrances of life. That was an important lesson for me.

Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises taught me about courage and acceptance of what we can’t control. A man can be destroyed but not defeated. (From The Old Man and the Sea). The final scene of The Sun Also Rises—when  Brett says, “Oh, Jake . . . we could have had such a damned good time together” and Jake replies, “Yes, isn't it pretty to think so?”—struck me in the gut.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road introduced me not only to the Beat Generation, but also to a style of writing that has influenced me for over forty years. He remembered events and people and wrote about them. I now know that Kerouac carried small notebooks, in which he wrote the stories of his road trips even as they were happening.

At some point—I think it was after an essay I wrote about The Sun Also Rises—McCrown was impressed by my writing. One day he asked to speak with me after class. We talked for a very long time. He stroked my ego by telling me that I had writing talent. But then he told me something that I didn’t understand: he said that if I wanted to write well, I should drop out of college and see the world.
It took me a while—and a lot of worthless criticism from anally fixated college professors—before I understood what McCrown was saying. Jack Kerouac wrote:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!”
One doesn’t meet those people sitting in classrooms. The place to find them is in the world.

No, I didn’t drop out of college. I ended up collecting three degrees and working toward a fourth. But I’ve traveled a lot since that conversation with McCrown back in 1964. I’ve met hundreds of interesting people—mad and otherwise. And I’ve collected stories—lots of stories.

I’ve used those stories as illustrations while teaching, in sermons, and in writing. I’ve never published a book, although I have four “in process.” All are based, as with Kerouac’s books, on experiences I’ve had and people—mad and otherwise—who are real. Many are included in stories I’ve posted on this blog.

I wonder what happened to McCrown. I never saw him again after my freshman year. Perhaps he drove around the country in his British racing green MGA as I later did in my blue MGB. I don’t know. I do know that he was one of the “mad ones” who touched my life. For that I am thankful.


  1. I like the mad ones better myself

  2. Yes, Quinton, the mad ones are so much more alive.

  3. Thank you, Thomas. I think it gives insight into the world as I've come to see it.

  4. when I was 16 i was working city swimming pool one of the Lifeguards Don Williams drove an MGB,I thought that was a really cool.

  5. I agree, Mike. I repaired one for 11 years. My ex-wife found article in Playboy about sports cars: It said something like this about MGBs:

    With its top up the MGB look like a hamster wearing a baseball cap.Its electrical system is as efficient as a bunch of tallow candles in the wind, The British breaks and forget that oil is a liquid so they have hydraulic breaks and shock absorbers so the oil can leak out of them along with the engine.

  6. I really like this post. It excites me to be a bit more, wild.