So here I am in Madison, having a peak experience at the Writers Institute and bringing my usual mix of information, inspiration and bafflegab. Mostly, though, I’ve been keen to walk the streets of Madison, since the city plays a not-insignificant role in my new novel, LUCY IN THE SKY. There’s a point in that book when our hero, teen hippie-wannabe Gene Steen, makes his way to Madison at its counterculture height in 1969. Never having been here before, having only imagined the place and researched it via Wikipedia, Google Earth, and my own febrile imagination, I was curious about how the reality would match, or fail to match, my vision.

So I took myself out onto State Street, then as now the main shopping street and chief hangout for denizens of the nearby University of Wisconsin at Madison. The result was weirder than I expected. Even through the veil of 40+ years, it was clear that State Street had not lost its hippie roots. Evidence? These shots from the head shop Sunshine Daydream, which could easily have opened its doors in the sixties.

Of course there have been a few changes — witness this sign in the window of Sunshine Daydream:

Not sure there would have been quite the need for this “no guns” admonition back in ’69. Yet the spirit lives on.

As I strolled the streets I experienced an odd schizophrenia. I have never been here before, yet I knew for sure that I had been here, both in the 1969 of my imagining and in the real world of my writing desk, just about a year ago. I felt at once alien and quite at home. This feeling serves as a certain synecdoche (look it up) for my whole experience of writing the novel. I have described it as an emotional memoir — the story of the hippie wannabe I always wanted to be but never quite was. Until I walked State Street last night, I didn’t realize how fully I had achieved my goal of reliving a past I never had. This is the power that a writer enjoys, at least within the realm of his own head and heart. I was never here in 1969, yet thanks to the power of imagination, I got a chance to relive the experience for the first time, if that makes any kind of sense at all. Out on the street last night I experienced real nostalgia and real joy, and realized that, by a certain backdoor means, I had achieved an important goal for myself. I brought a time and place alive in my mind, in a way that I now know to but full, complete, and deeply satisfying. I’m going to school on this. The writer I will be from now on will strive to recreate this sense of abstract creation. I will make worlds, if for no other reason than that I may visit them.  And I don’t know, but do suspect, that this will make my future works more powerful, visceral and satisfying for my readers as well.

In past I have spent time in college towns and felt the familiar “bottom ache” (see LUCY for more on this concept) of lost youth and time gone by. Here and now I don’t feel those things. I need not long for something I wanted and never had, for, thanks to the experience of writing LUCY IN THE SKY, I feel like I had that something; I need not regret a road not taken, for now I’ve gone back and taken it, at least by roundabout and fictional means. To me that’s a win.

Yet as whimsy is still my stock in trade, I can’t close this post on that. Instead, I offer this cut-out from a warning sign at the UWM boathouse on Lake Mendota. It offers this sagacious advice:

Remember… hug the shoreline. There’s only hard paddling and dangerous water elsewhere. I do not consider these “words to live by.” I consider them words to reject utterly. To quote Bruce Springsteen, “Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun, oh but Mama, that’s where the fun is.” Hug the shore? Screw that. I’m going where the hard paddling is.

More later, -jv

Oh, PS and inevitably, Check it out. You, too, can live in the past.

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