From time to time, different Kerouac House alumni will write in and tell us what they’ve been up to, or how their residency helped prepare them for the writing life. This month, we hear from Summer 2019 resident, Deirdre Coyle.
Deirdre Coyle’s Summer at the Kerouac House
I lived at the Kerouac House during the summer of 2019, while I was working on a speculative novel about depression. I drafted the bulk of the text from the back half of the house, where Jack Kerouac had lived with his mother in the late ’50s.
Over that summer I made many wonderful friends. I attended readings and events with local writers; I talked with cats and squirrels on my evening walks; a lizard who lived under the porch told me that his name was Frederick.
As my new human friends got to know me better, they began to cautiously mention that the Kerouac House might be a little bit…haunted. My response to this was always the same: “Don’t worry, I like it.”
It’s no secret that I veer towards the darkness in my work. When writing fiction, I’ve often written about monstrous women; when writing nonfiction, I’ve occasionally written about monstrous men. I’ve always been interested in monsters, transformation, liminal spaces in the world and in human lives.
In his intro to my farewell reading, writer John King said, “In her time at this house, she has mostly written in the back because that’s where the vibes are. That’s the area of the house where Jack wrote the first draft of The Dharma Bums. Hopefully you’ve been less medicated than him in order to get so much writing done.” This got a nice laugh from the audience, which led me to believe that the “vibes” of the Kerouac House are generally acknowledged and understood by the community.
Before I ever set foot in the Kerouac House, a friend told me it contained “the chair where Kerouac drank himself to death.” Jack owned the recliner chair in question during his final days in St. Petersburg; the chair was relocated to Orlando after the advent of the residency. Karen Price writes that there’s “something haunting about the chair,” that it “commands the back room of the small cottage…like some sort of derelict general.”
It’s true that the chair has a certain presence. Many nights when feeling stuck, I would pour a glass of wine and sit in Jack’s chair to write longhand. The energy of the room changed when I sat there, and my work changed with it.
Yes, I know how that sounds. But whatever your relationship to the supernatural—in real life or in fiction—it doesn’t matter whether you believe that the vibes I felt were metaphysical. Whatever I felt in that house worked for me.
So I worked.
That said, while I had no issue with these vibes, I was having issues with my manuscript. When writing about depression for long periods, I started to feel the weight of its subject matter. This is appropriate: not “feeling” what you’re writing flattens the work. Still, it never felt good to be inside of those feelings.
I developed particular rituals when preparing to enter my writing vortex. In the mornings, I’d situate my laptop between an iced coffee (from Downtown CREDO) and a Joan Jett prayer candle (from Park Ave CDs). In the evenings, I’d burn incense (from Avalon Orlando), pour a glass of wine, and write longhand in the chair. Sometimes I’d fall too far into my own vortex and find myself crying in the haunted half of the house. At those points, I’d stop for the night and retreat to Netflix.
The amazing thing about being in residence at the Kerouac House was that it provided a safe place for me to go towards that darkness—and to easily reemerge from it. Even when I delved uncomfortably far into the darkness, I’d wake the next morning rejuvenated, ready to roam around the neighborhood, chat with the local lizard population, and call my new human friends if I got too isolated.
I still cannot look at that particular manuscript when I am stressed or anxious. Some work is too heavy, and there are times when I can’t handle the weight. That’s okay—I have other projects, and different times call for different work. But the Kerouac House, with its kind community, charming neighborhood, and intense but intensely helpful vibes, gave me the space and the safety to go to darker places within my work and within myself.
Even now, I often find myself wishing I could pop into that back room just for a weekend, beam myself from my home in Virginia to the deeper South, to stare at the Spanish moss out the window, to light my Joan Jett candle, and to vibe from Jack’s haunted chair.
Deirdre Coyle is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The New Republic, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Hobart, Joyland, and elsewhere. She is a columnist at Unwinnable Monthly. Her website is DeirdreCoyle.com.
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