Ken Kesey's Eclectic Writing Acid Test

The legendary novelist told his University of Oregon writing students they would publish or perish together–and the novel, "Caverns"is the result

Ken Kesey reads, in costume, from his children's book 'Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear' during a performance at Central Park's SummerStage, New York City, July 25th, 1991 Credit: Jack Vartoogian/Getty

On a Monday afternoon in September of 1987, 13 University of Oregon graduate students stood on the front lawn of the home of novelist Ken Kesey, waiting for him to show up for the first meeting of their creative-writing course. The session was supposed to have started at 2:30, but here it was 3:20 and still no Kesey.

Suddenly, the students heard rubber tires straining on the road and the metallic thunk of shocks hitting the dip in the driveway. A long, white 1973 Cadillac Eldorado convertible with blood-red upholstery came thundering up the concrete drive. Behind the wheel was a boulder-size head fringed with thick gray curls and wide sideburns and topped by a white English motoring cap. Ken Kesey had arrived.

''Has anyone seen my wife, Faye?'' he hollered. The students shook their heads in unison. ''Well,'' Kesey said, leaping quickly from the car, ''she's got the keys. No problem, though–there hasn't been a house built that can't be broken into.''

Without further comment he stalked down the driveway and disappeared around the rear of the house. The students waited. Bangs, thuds and other mysterious subterranean sounds began to reverberate from the bowels of the two-story English colonial, located just two blocks from the University of Oregon's campus near downtown Eugene. Minutes later the author returned with a grim face. He had gained access to the cellar, but the door to the upper floors had proved impregnable.

Plan B: Kesey found an unlocked first-story window. He heaved, but the window held fast–it was paint-jammed. He stalked back to the Eldorado, the class now following him in a group. Retrieving a tire iron from the trunk, he returned to the window. He mounted a second assault and finally managed to pry the frame open. Then, casually handing the iron to the closest student, he placed two thick-fingered hands on the windowsill and heaved himself up into the aperture. The window picked that very instant to unjam. Sliding downward, it smashed onto the author's bald skull with a sharp wooden crack! and sent his barrel-shaped body tumbling into the darkness of the living room.

Jeff Forest, an aspiring writer from Chicago with a shoulder-length frizzy hair, took a cautious step forward and hoisted himself up onto the sill. Kesey lay sprawled and semiconscious on the living-room floor. Jim Finley, a beefy 25-year-old from the state of Washington, sighed wearily. ''Great,'' he said. ''Curly's here. I wonder when Moe and Larry pull in.''

***

By the end of the school year, that group of befuddled students gathered around Kesey's living-room window–and the instructor flat on his back seeing stars–would earn at least a small footnote in literary history. Together they would produce the first collaborative novel by a university writing class ever to be accepted for publication. Viking Press will release the book as a trade paperback in January of 1990, under the title of Caverns, with authorship credited to O.U. Levon–an anagram for University of Oregon novel.

That Kesey would use such an unusual project as his method for teaching creative writing comes as no surprise. The author's reputation as a nonconformist has, over the years, taken on the mythic proportions of his most famous fictional character, Randle Patrick McMurphy, the hero of his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. A literary wunderkind of the early Sixties, Kesey credited the hallucinatory power of that novel to his own experiments with LSD. Soon afterward, he discarded his literary career, announcing that he'd rather live a novel than write one.

In 1968, he appeared as the central character in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test–a day-glo Don Quixote who loaded his band of Merry Pranksters into a mandala-splashed school bus and careened across North America spraying sparks that would ignite the psychedelic grass fire of the Sixties.

The idea of collaborating on a novel with a group of students first came to Kesey several years ago. He had been to a couple of university writing programs, doing the usual gig of a visiting author: leading workshops, reading student manuscripts and critiquing them. What he read disturbed him–not because the writing was raw, weird or unsettling, but because it wasn't. The stories were well crafted; all contained the requisite amounts of character development, dramatic conflict and resolution. But they were empty at the center, dead on the page. They were so carefully designed that they never came truly alive. The problem, Kesey concluded, lay not with the young writers themselves; there was plenty of talent chained beneath the forged-iron prose. The problem lay with the academic system that had produced them.

''You see,'' says Kesey, ''after a certain point, colleges don't teach writing, they teach rewriting. They teach people to figure, 'Well, I'll do an outline, and then I'll work on it and make it real later.' Well, that's valid, but it's no fun. The fun in writing is like jazz–where you're singing, where suddenly the voice is going forward and you're riding it, you're surfing on top of it. That is the art of writing. How does one impart this? How does one find it? It's as hard to find it as it is to teach somebody to find it.''

One way, Kesey concluded, might be to lead a group of students through the entire process of creating a novel. No discussions of literary theory. The students would join with him in working on a real manuscript, wrestling with tangible problems of plot, character development and prose style.

Kesey presented his brainchild to the Oregon English department. The faculty and students were either wildly enthusiastic about the project or vehemently opposed to it. The cynics said the idea was simply ludicrous. Did anyone really believe that a dozen students working with a wild man like Kesey could produce a coherent manuscript? Did anyone seriously think that something meaningful would come out of this?

Thanks to John Haislip, the director of the creative writing program, and other professors who saw the value of adding a writer of Kesey's stature to the faculty, the project was eventually given a green light. But skepticism continued to linger, even among the students who'd signed up for the course.

Ten minutes after Kesey's tumble through the window that first day, the students found themselves grouped around a long antique table in the author's huge living room. An oversize Ouija board hung on one wall. Along another were shelves crammed with atlases and books on magic, mythology and archaeology.

At the head of the table, Kesey addressed the class in a low, rapid voice; his eyes wandering evasively as he attempted to explain his game plan. The goal, he said, was not only to produce a finished manuscript by the end of the school year but also to submit that manuscript to a major publishing house and sell it. The students listened in silence, but behind their respectful expressions, the reactions were less than optimistic. ''Bullshit!'' thought Jeff Forester. ''He's trying to get us psyched,'' thought Bob Blucher, a native of Eugene in his midforties. ''That's a good idea. But there's just no way!''

As if he sensed a challenge, Kesey's voice grew stronger, more self-possessed. ''We will do it,'' he said. ''If we finish it and it gets published, everybody gets an A. If we don't, you get an F. Then I fail, too. That's the deal. There's no in-between with a novel. You either finish it and you get it published, or it doesn't get accepted and you've failed.''

***

Kesey discouraged the students from trying to outline the plot of the novel ahead of time. Instead, he told each student to create a character to work on. Plot comes out of character, he explained, not the other way around. ''The trick is for us to build character in our characters,'' Kesey said, ''to breathe life into them, to get them to stand up, stretch and start doing stuff. We're not interested in pulling strings, in being puppeteers. We want these people to rise up off the page. Then we sit back and follow them through the novel.''

As Kesey talked, a quarter flashed suddenly into the fingers of his right hand, rolling effortlessly across the back of his thick knuckles and disappearing again into thin air. ''I want to work on an old magician,'' he said. ''You know, somebody who knows all the tricks and now wants to see the real stuff. You know, magic.''

To many of the students in the class, there were obvious parallels between Kesey–who has said, ''I'm a magician; writing is just one of the tricks that I do''–and his fictional counterpart.

Drawing on his powers as a magician, Kesey had been able to make lightning strike twice in the early Sixties. ''He wrote two of the most influential books of the last thirty years,'' says Richard Ford, author of The Sportswriter. ''Sometimes a Great Notion is one of the great, great books written by an American, hands down. Likewise, Cuckoo's Nest.''

But Kesey, who was only 26 when Cuckoo's Nest was published, has been hard-pressed to harness that lightning in the decades since. He has, however, been writing steadily. The University of Oregon library holds a 36-inch stack of material donated by Kesey–experimental prose, efforts to push beyond the innovative narrative techniques of Sometimes a Great Notion that ultimately led down blind alleys.

There have been some first-rate pieces for Esquire and Rolling Stone, several unproduced screenplays and at least three unpublished novels. Two brilliant opening chapters for one novel, Seven Prayers by Grandma Whittier, were printed in a 1977 edition of Northwest Review, but the balance of the book dissatisfied Kesey, and it has never been published in its entirety.

And then there is the Alaskan epic–Sailor Song–begun in the early Eighties. Promising excerpts were published in Life and Esquire, but just as Kesey seemed to be gathering momentum, work on the book was disrupted by the tragic death in 1984 of his 20-year-old son, Jed, in an automobile accident.

Most of the students believed that Kesey was, at least in part, hoping this project would renew his creative energy, that he was using it to grapple with the long form of the novel once again. ''I think we were all touched because we felt that he was looking for something,'' says Ken Zimmerman, currently a poetry editor for Northwest Review. ''I think that set a tone of seriousness in the class.''

***

During the weeks that followed, the students brought in their characters. Many, like Kesey's, were fictional alter egos. Trumpet player Bob Blucher brought in ''the Human Jukebox,'' a carnival performer who also played the trumpet. Jeff Forester, a lapsed Catholic, created Father Paul, a priest caught in a crisis of faith. All of the characters–including Kesey's–would undergo transformations during the course of the collaboration. Some would be combined with other characters, and others eliminated altogether, but each added some flavor to the novel's creative stew.

The plot and setting soon came together. The story was to take place in 1934 and would focus on a group of misfit truth seekers who follow Kesey's carnival magician on a journey into the High Sierras to find a ''secret cave of the American ancients.'' The magician, Dr. Charles Loach, claims the cavern contains a series of prehistoric wall paintings that reveal the mysteries of existence.

The class immersed itself in research, filling Kesey's living room with newspaper clippings, photographs, recordings, maps and books from the period. ''We'd come into class,'' says Bob Blucher, ''and Kesey would just start talking, and he might go on for half an hour. He'd talk about a ship that was wrecked off the Oregon coast that the novel might have to do with, or a meteor that came down in eastern Oregon made out of an element not found on earth. He had so many ideas–that got everybody else's energy going, too.''

''He doesn't say, 'Okay, this is the way it's going to be,' '' says Chuck Varani. ''He lures you in, gets you intrigued with the notion.''

Kesey often opened the class sessions with magic tricks, some of which would eventually be performed by his character in the book. Debate among the students over the secrets of the tricks served to illuminate the novel's major theme: Is there real magic in the world, and if so, how do you separate it from the carnival hokum? How do you distinguish genuine prophets from the snake-oil salesmen?

To simulate other scenes in the novel, Kesey led the class on a series of field trips. They rode around Eugene in the back of darkened vans, climbed local mountain peaks and explored subterranean lava tubes in central Oregon, wearing carbide miners' lamps authentic to the period.

Some of the students felt that they, like their characters, had embarked on a journey. ''It was a quest, we were all on this quest,'' says Ben Bochner, a cutly-haired, dreamy-eyed part-time musician. ''Our characters were going into a cave, we were going into a book, and none of us knew what we would find there.''

By the end of December, however, it began to look as if the naysayers in the Oregon English department might be right. Despite the students' enthusiasm for the characters and the basic storyline they'd created, the actual writing of the manuscript sputtered fitfully. Kesey had been giving individual students chapters to write up at home, but when people brought their material back, the styles clashed wildly.

Simple scenes had been overblown into unworkable purple passages. Or worse, people weren't turning their chapters in at all but were endlessly reworking them in an attempt to impress Kesey and the class with their creative powers. In four months, they'd produced only 60 pages of radically inconsistent material.

Then, after Christmas break, Kesey introduced a new plan of attack. ''Forget this going home and writing,'' he told the class. ''You get too convoluted. We're going to learn how to write under pressure, just like a newspaper with a deadline.'' From now on, they would write in class together and would finish a chapter during each three-hour session.

The students would each be assigned a chapter to edit. They would outline their chapter into 14 separate beats of action. At the beginning of each class session, the 14 scenes would be written down on pieces of paper, tossed in a hat and passed around the table. Everyone, including Kesey, would draw a slip at random, and when he said, ''Go,'' they would begin writing.

At the end of an hour–presto!–they would have a completed chapter. Most of the students hid their misgivings, but Jim Finley made no effort to disguise his antipathy. He was a slow, meticulous writer who fervently believed in the Hemingway ethic: waiting for hours, days, weeks if necessary, for ''one true sentence'' to come to him. ''It's a stupid idea,'' he told Kesey point-blank. ''I can't do this. I won't do it.'' Kesey shrugged, looked down at his watch and said, ''Begin.''

The rest of the class immediately started writing. Finley looked on with disgust for a few minutes, then reluctantly joined in. Finley and the rest of the students soon discovered that throwing themselves into spontaneous writing gave their prose a sense of urgency and immediacy and opened them up to all kinds of creative surprises that occurred in the act of writing itself. ''Once I actually did it, I found it freed me up,'' says Finley. ''I didn't have to worry about the perfection or the precision of the writing. More than anything, it allowed me to be real free with my prose.''

Morale soared. The class began whipping out upward of 60 pages in one afternoon. ''The quality of the prose skyrocketed,'' says Kesey. ''It stopped being this terrible, anal-retentive, squeezed turds of academic prose and just was moving the plot forward, because you had to move it. What keeps people from being successful is not the inability to write, it's the inability to sink your teeth into something and say, 'It's me and you going down together.' It's given me a whole different idea about the length of time I've spent mulling over something and cogitating. If you design it too much beforehand, it's dead when you get there.''

***

The students say it was inspiring to see Kesey climb right into the trenches with them. ''He wasn't saying, 'Okay, you guys sit down and write, and I'll judge it,' '' says Chuck Varani. ''He was doing the same thing. I think he got the same electrical jolt we all did about writing. In some ways you envy his success, but to me it would be so hard to have written two really great books. People are always wanting an encore. So I think he got the same juice that we did about getting into writing again and not worrying about his stuff. I think Kesey said, 'I'm just another writer again, just writing, and that's it.' ''

As the writing sessions gathered steam, the characters that each student had created were being handed over to other writers, who pushed them in unexpected directions and transformed them in unpredictable ways. The students found that it was like watching their children fall under the influence of strangers. And like parents, the writers learned they had to let go of their creations, had to let them leave the nest and find their own way through the world of the novel.

H. Highwater ''Hal'' Powers got the biggest lesson in letting go. A gentle, graying, bearded man in his late forties, Powers had worked on a number of small town newspapers during his youth in Kentucky and Illinois. Thus, his character, Chick Ferrell, a down-on-his-luck reporter, was near and dear to him.

''At first I had some difficulty selling him to the class,'' Powers says. ''He came close to being eliminated or being absorbed into another character, so I fought hard for him because I wanted him to survive, I wanted to have that kind of investment of myself.''

Then, about halfway through the second term, Powers skipped a class session to go to a job interview. The class had been working on a scene in which Loach and his band come upon an ink-black lake in the lost cave. Suddenly Jim Finley was struck with inspiration: What if Ferrell fell into the mouth of a giant whirlpool and got sucked into the bottomless depths of the lake? Finley passed the idea around the table on a slip of paper.

When it got to the other end, Kesey roared out with laughter, ''Stop! Stop! Let's rewrite this right now!'' ''I came home late that night,'' Powers says, ''and I got a call from Lynn Jeffress. After a long, fairly inconsequential conversation, she said, 'Oh, by the way, did you know that Chick died? It just happened. Nobody planned it.'''

When Powers arrived at class the following Monday, most of the culprits nervously avoided his eyes; some mumbled feeble apologies. Then, about an hour into the session, a delivery man arrived at the house bearing a stunning arrangement of white carnations. Kesey opened the card and read it aloud. It was a note from Chick Ferrell's mother, expressing heartfelt grief over the loss of her son. But she wanted the class to know that she understood why he had to die and was honored that he had given his life to such a worthy cause.

The room exploded with laughter, and the tension over the incident was instantly demolished. Powers, of course, had sent the flowers. ''From that point on,'' he says, ''I was fine with it all.''

By March the class had amassed 500 pages of raw manuscript. Now, with three months left, they began the final revision process. First, the students edited the chapters they'd been assigned to, then Kesey took over for the final pass, honing the prose down, attempting to sand the voices of 14 different writers into one consistent narrative tone.

''It was like sculpting,'' says Lynn Jeffress, a 44-year-old from Waldport, Oregon. ''We had it there in its raw form, then he started fine-tuning it. Watching him do that was fascinating.''

On the night of June 4th, the class held a public reading of the finished work. Kesey stepped up to a microphone before an auditorium crowded with professors, students, and friends and relatives of the class. His mother and Faye were there; his children Zane, 26, and Sunshine, 22, had set up video equipment to tape the event.

As Kesey explained how he had first been inspired to take on the project and what it meant to him, his voice trembled with a mixture of nerves, emotion and pride.

Kesey sent the manuscript to Viking on June 6th with a note to his editor, Chuck Verrill: ''Here it is, guys! What do you think? It ain't half-bad!'' Verrill had known about the project from its inception. Although he found it interesting as an approach to teaching writing, he harbored serious doubts about the marketability of the final product. ''I thought it would be an outright failure,'' he says.

But he read the manuscript and was surprised. Kesey was right. It wasn't half-bad; in fact, it was a good deal better than that. The narrative tone was surprisingly consistent, the story moved, and the characters were quirky and interesting.

''It's not great,'' says Verrill, ''but it's good, fun stuff. There's definitely the Kesey imprint on it. That's one of the fun questions to keep asking: How much of this is Kesey and how much of it is the students?''

***

Kesey's promise to his pupils on the first day of class has been kept. They have since been exposed to all the intricacies of publishing and have attended meetings with agents, publishers and editors over contract negotiations, final revisions, jacket design and possible sale of the book's movie rights.

With the project's success, those who opposed it within the Oregon English department have now faded into the woodwork. ''I think it's pretty hypocritical,'' one student says. ''The same people that thought this was going to be a failure, that Kesey's just a showboat and obnoxious, now are claiming that the University of Oregon's innovative approach is what's made this happen.''

Beyond the campus, the literary community at large is divided over the merits of the endeavor, even as a method for teaching fiction. ''I would think that if a man like Ken Kesey were to take his time to talk to young writers, that even if they didn't want to be his kind of writer, they would have much to learn,'' says Richard Ford.

''The problem is it makes everybody try to mimic the prevailing tone of the work,'' says T. Coraghessan Boyle, the head of the undergraduate writing program at the University of Southern California and the author of World's End, which won the 1988 PEN/Faulkner Award. ''I don't think that's necessarily what you want to do when you teach writing. I think you want to have people try to develop their own style. Maybe at 18 you don't know what that is yet. I think you figure it out by doing it, not by having a project like this. This is more like a course in 'What is a novel?' than in writing.''

But Kesey's students certainly feel they learned something. None of them feels that the development of his or her individual voice as a writer was in any way impeded on by the project. In fact, most claim their own styles blossomed after working on the group book. ''I think it opened our minds up considerably, so that we could learn about other voices and other styles of writing,'' says Jim Finley.

Jeff Forester agrees. ''I developed more confidence with my voice, more assertiveness,'' he says. ''My idea about what character is and how to develop character really expanded. My ideas about point of view and how to shift point of view and what point of view actually is really changed and crystallized.''

Many have started novels of their own now. Moreover, they now have an agent and an editor to whom they can take their manuscripts. ''I would be very surprised if there weren't some very fine books that came out of some of these writers,'' says Ken Zimmerman.

And Kesey? He has rented out his house in Eugene and has moved back to the family farm in Pleasant Hill, where the legendary bus sags in a nearby field like a psychedelic compost heap, and every hoe, rake, hammer and screwdriver on the spread vibrates with electric rainbows of day-glo paint. The students gather there often on holidays and for parties, mingling with Ken Babbs, Mike Hagen and other graying veterans of the Acid Tests.

Kesey's batteries seem to be fully charged these days; the brawny body and equally muscular mind are seldom at rest. Prancing across the multicolored sheen of the giant horoscope dial on his living room floor, he gushes excitedly over at least half a dozen creative projects.

He breaks out a screenplay about beat icon Neal Cassady, written 10 years ago, recently rediscovered by his agent and now to be published in book form next summer. The neatly typeset manuscript is interspersed with pictures from the famous bus trip of '64. It falls open to a portrait of Jack Kerouac, taken during the Pranksters' invasion of New York City.

''We made a mistake,'' Kesey says, referring to Kerouac's reticent reaction to the troupe. ''We should have taken it a lot slower with him. We went there expecting him to be like he was when he wrote On the Road. Kind of like the people who show up here expecting me to be like I was.''

Later in the evening, talk turns to the Alaska book. Kesey is hard at work on it again, catalyzed by the environmental threats that have put America's last wilderness, and the planet itself, under siege.

The next day, during breakfast in a restaurant in Eugene, Jeff Forester pauses to reflect between mouthfuls. ''Probably the best thing to come out of this class,'' he says, ''is the fact that Ken's writing again.''