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The Unkind Might Say Ken Kesey's Writing Class Was a Cuckoo's Nest—but, Hey, They Wrote a Novel

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The audience looked understandably curious as it straggled into a University of Oregon hall for a demonstration of something called group text. For nine months, flamboyant Ken Kesey, author of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, had been teaching a novel-writing class with a Keseyan wrinkle: His 13 students were charged with jointly producing an actual novel, with the teacher himself as coordinating author. Portions of their 350-page, 1930s mystery, Caverns, were about to be unveiled to 200 faculty members, students and invited guests. Onstage, Kesey sported a top hat and tattered black suit, while his eager collaborators, ages 24 to 45, wore their own makeshift versions of Depression-era garb, some with bare feet. When they finished the reading, two hours later, it was hard to tell whether the resounding applause was from pleasure or relief.

Kesey cooked up his experiment to relax his 13 neophytes, including an excop and a computer programmer. “Writing is a lonely business, done pretty much on mountaintops,” he says. “If you get stuck on the mountaintop, you’ll die of loneliness.” At first each student wrote at home, but literary chaos ensued. After that, the biweekly class opened with each student giving his ideas for the chapter at hand. Next, each was assigned, by lot, a piece of the chapter to write. Kesey would holler, “Go!” and for 15 to 40 minutes the group would scribble away, then tape their contributions. Between classes the result was typed professionally and the manuscript rotated among the students for editing. “I can’t imagine great literature being done this way,” Kesey concedes, “but you learn to do great literature this way.”

Caverns is described by one of the co-authors as “Indiana Jones meets The Canterbury Tales.” The writing is hardly elegant, but Kesey hopes to sell the book to a publisher and to Hollywood, and since he considers himself “half the class,” he will accept half the royalties. “Nothing stimulates art like money,” he says.

Whatever happens, the novel has clearly helped the reputation of at least one participant. “I now think Ken is a much better writer,” says student Jeff Forester, 26, “than I thought he was after just reading his books.”