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HORSEFEATHERS: STORIES FROM ROOM 241

An Introduction by Ed McClanahan

I call my poem ‘Football,’ because that’s the title of it.
                     -- Mr. Wimple, “Fibber McGee and Molly”

In Palo Alto way back in the late 1960s, Gurney Norman and I and our hippie peacenik comrades Jon Buckley and Fred Nelson were co-editors of a lovely little short-lived butterfly of a publication called the Free You, which had begun life as the newsletter of the Mid-Peninsula Free University, itself a somewhat evanescent institution. The free university movement was a thing unto itself in those times, and I won’t attempt to describe it here except to say that restraint had very little to do with it.

Nothing at all, in fact. Indeed, the operative editorial policy of the Free You was that we never, ever turned anything down. Our magazine was to be an open forum, available to all. Yes! The Voice of the People, liberated and gender-blended and cranked to the max! Every man the captain of her own ship! Every woman his own editor! Free you! Free you!

I’m probably overlooking something (and if I am, please don’t remind me of it), but to my knowledge the Free You was the first contributor-edited publication since the King James Bible, which makes it a latter-day ancestor of desktop publishing and Wikipedia and the blogosphere and all their multitudinous unseemly electronic spawn, not to mention all their misbegotten little print-on-demand progeny such as this very book that you hold in your hand at the present moment.

But this particular book has yet another illustrious progenitor: a remarkable—albeit truly, tee-totally awful—novel called Caverns, by one O.U. Levon, an author never heard from before or, mercifully, since.

There’s a backstory, of course: In the fall of 1988, my noted and notorious old friend Ken Kesey began the only college course he ever undertook to teach, a year-long graduate class in the creative writing program at the University of Oregon, his alma mater. Now, as Mater should’ve known, Ken (never trust a Prankster) wasn’t going to be your everyday pedagogue. There were thirteen graduate writing students in the class, and Ken’s idea was that they would devote the entire school year to writing a novel together, a collaborative novel, plot to be determined. Ken and his wife Faye lived several miles south of Eugene, but it happened that they owned a house on the edge of the OU campus. At the beginning of the fall term, they moved into that house … and so did Ken’s thirteen students!

Well, not literally. But they were underfoot pretty much full-time for the next nine months, a veritable infestation—there’s one, behind the fridge!—, yet by the end of the school year, under the benign guidance and direction of a guy who had so much charisma he really could have herded cockroaches, they had absolutely produced a genuine, certifiable novel, a dog of a novel to be sure but a novel withal, and a novel well on its way to publication, at that. In the next publishing season, Viking Penguin (a publisher with whom Ken had, it must be admitted, more than a little influence) brought out a nice high-end paperback original of Caverns, by the mysterious O.U. Levon, whose name, spelled backward, just happens to say “novel, University of Oregon” in crypto-Prankster.

So okay, the novel wasn’t all that hot; a committee will write a good novel about as soon as all those theoretical millions of monkeys get around to typing Shakespeare. But that wasn’t really the point anyhow; the point was to give everybody in the class a taste of the unique literary experience of conceiving and writing and publishing a novel. And I’m pretty sure that, as pedagogy, it succeeded admirably. Thirteen talented and dedicated writers set aside their own work for a year and willingly threw themselves into the thankless task of writing a book they probably knew no one would ever really want to read—, and I daresay not one of them regrets a minute of it.

Nowadays, of course, self-editing and self-publishing are as easy as technology—and self-importance—can make them. Nowadays—as that annoying upstart undergrad reminds his whiney professor in the recently-ubiquitous TV commercial—“everybody can get published.” Free you! Free you!

Which brings us back to this very book that you hold in your hand at the present moment. Horsefeathers (I’ll explain the title in a minute) is a by-product of the unholy union of Caverns and the Free You, with me as midwife (if you can picture that) in my capacity as Temporary Executive Big Cheese of English 507-001, a University of Kentucky mostly- undergraduate creative writing workshop.

I hadn’t taught a regular college creative writing class since 1989, and because I’d long since stopped enjoying the work, it was my firm intention never to teach another one. But when the opportunity to do it one more time suddenly presented itself last summer, I couldn’t resist. Maybe, after twenty years, I could finally clear my palate.

The class meets in Room 241 of a squat gray concrete colossus called White Hall Classroom Building, a utilitarian relic of creeping Stalinism in late-1970s Bluegrass architecture. Re-entering the building, I experienced a familiar sense of dread; I hadn’t liked being in here before, and I probably wasn’t going to like it now. And I knew that, like every other classroom in this stupid upside-down building wherein students and faculty alike trudge up the stairs as though they were going down into the mines, Room 241 would be a sort of coal-cellar in the sky, an upstairs dungeon with windows. And so it was, and so it is.

But when it comes to classrooms, it’s the class part that matters. In Room 241, I found thirteen (uh oh! thirteen!) people who, for thirteen different reasons, I immediately liked. I won’t describe them individually here, because in this book they‘ll be introducing themselves, via their work; but they seemed to be an amiable lot, so I liked them accordingly.

And as that initial meeting proceeded, we continued to hit it off: I’d prepared an embarrassingly stuffy syllabus—“the primary business of the art of writing,” I harrumphed, “like that of every other art, is the pursuit of truth”—in which I posited my old-fashioned notion of a creative writing workshop, wherein the students read their work aloud and we talk about it, and they allowed that that would probably be satisfactory. Then I read them a few selections of my own deathless prose, and they never threw the first rotten vegetable at me. And finally, I asked my thirteen likeable bozos to send me, as a warm-up exercise, a little sample of their writing before the next class—specifically, I asked them to recall a moment in their own lives in which they’d been intensely engaged with one other person, and to write a brief account of that moment, in the first person, from the other person’s point of view—and they didn’t visibly recoil in horror at the prospect.

After class several of us walked over to Pazzo’s for a social hour or three (higher learning goes down easier, I have found, when it’s lubricated with a drop of ignorant oil), and I enjoyed their company to a borderline-unseemly extent. I eventually toddled home thinking, hmmm, y’know, this might not be such an ordeal after all.

It so happened that, over the following weekend, the Free You was very much on my mind, because a longtime friend had just posted an online archive of the salty, high-spirited old rag, and I was cruising it with great delight; it was like taking a weekend outing in a time machine. Which set me to thinking about other latter-day visionary, irreverent publishing ventures, such as (notably) The Whole Earth Catalog or (almost invisibly) Ed Sanders’s Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. And of course the list included Kesey’s old kitchen-table literary journal Spit in the Ocean, with its themed issues and rotating guest editors—and thinking of Spit naturally reminded me in turn of Caverns, perhaps the most quixotic endeavor of them all.

[I should mention here that, after Ken’s passing in 2001, I edited the seventh and final issue of Spit in the Ocean, a tribute volume subtitled All about Kesey, dedicated to the memory of its founder. Spit 7 was published by Viking Penguin in 2001.]

Then, over that same weekend, those warm-up exercises began coming in, and suddenly, as though I’d unexpectedly hatched a brood of rowdy chicks, there were thirteen small, shrill, insistent voices chirping thirteen fascinating little two-page stories at me. They were arriving on my computer about as fast as I could read them—I don’t do Twitter, but in my imagination it must be something like this—, and as I read I was naturally associating the stories with my snapshot recollections of their authors from our brief meeting of a few days earlier, so that it was like browsing through a picture album with a rambling, disjointed text. Or like reading an eccentric but oddly alluring little — uh-oh! — book.

So it occurred to me to print out these first truncated efforts slap-bang up against each other and copy them front and back, more or less as they might appear in, say, some tiny, struggling literary pennypaper, just so the authors could sorta groove on what it might feel like to publish in, say, some tiny, struggling literary pennypaper. And of course every proper pennypaper ought to have a title page with its very own proper name prominently displayed … which somehow (perhaps inevitably) brought back to mind the exuberantly improper Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.

But even though I could safely assume that no one but my thirteen hatchlings and I would ever see it, calling their lively, earnest, promising contributions Fuck You did seem a bit … crass; so instead, on a last-minute impulse, I entitled our little in-class pennypaper Horsepuckies: A Journal of the Arts, printed out fourteen copies (one for me) on the English Department’s dime, and — voila! — suddenly the world of literature had to make room for a new-hatched covey of Published Writers. Shabbily published to be sure, but as every unpublished writer understands, ya gotta start somewhere. And who knows what outlandish sum just one of those fourteen Xeroxes might fetch someday on Antiques Roadshow!

By this time, as you may have guessed, I was entertaining certain “why not?” thoughts. After all, this was probably the very last class I’d ever have at my disposal (as it were), so why shouldn’t we do something a little out of the ordinary? Not a novel, certainly—much as I appreciated my new best friends, a pestilential invasion of them such as the one Ken endured would have been greeted at my house by my personal bodyguard, Ortho the Orkin Man —, but why not some more modest undertaking, like … hey, why not an anthology of themselves! That’s the ticket, a contributor-edited anthology, just like the goddamn King James Bible! Free You! Free You!

Well, why not? I don’t know the first thing about desk-top publishing, but surely one of those smart-ass young whippersnappers in my class (the oldest whippersnapper is 65, but from my perspective she’s in the bloom of youth) would know all about it. So when we met on Thursday, after I’d presented them with their very own personal copies of that instantly-rare and—who knows?—priceless first and final issue of Horsepuckies: A Journal of the Arts, I revealed my little scheme; and although I can’t say they rose up in one body and carried me around Room 241 on their shoulders in jubilant celebration, I could definitely see their aspiring little literary ears perk up.

Then there was the matter of how we could pull this whole deal off. My influence with my publisher wasn’t quite as extensive as Ken’s had been, so we’d need to get resourceful. I’d been assuming that all students these days were perfect masters of everything techno, but it soon became apparent that my whippersnappers didn’t know a whit more about desktop publishing than I did, which was reassuring on the one hand but, on the other, not very promising. Maybe, I mused aloud, as a part-time untenured éminence grise in the English Department, I could weasel my way into the department office some quiet Saturday afternoon when nobody was looking and commandeer a Xerox machine and run off a few quick stealth copies …

But before we settle for that homeliest of alternatives (says I, brightening visibly), just let me ask my avuncular friend Charlie Hughes, resident grand panjandrum of Wind Press, publisher of select print-on-demand books of every description, whether he has any ideas that might be of service to us.

Long story short (as we’re all so very fond of saying nowadays), I did consult Uncle Charlie, and the handsome volume that you hold (or, at any rate, will soon be holding) in your hand at the present moment (if you’ve read this far) is the result. I won’t trouble you with the particulars, but Charlie and I agreed that in the spring of 2010, Wind would publish our book as a genuine paperback original, in a sure-to-be-priceless-someday limited first edition, in numbers sufficient to provide each contributor with a nice little stack of keepsakes. The contributors themselves, I told Charlie, will choose their own stories, and I promise to personally copy-edit their selections to the maximum extent the law allows, and to write an eloquent introduction (as the attentive reader may have noticed), and we’ll call the book … uh …

By this time, calling it Horsepuckies had already come to seem almost as crass as calling it you-know-what, so maybe (I suggested to the class at our next meeting) we could call it … aw, what the hey, Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers won’t mind, let’s just call it … Horsefeathers. And if anybody wants to know why, just remind them of the ancient joke about Col. Parker, the marketing genius who, long before he gave us Elvis, gave us the patent medicine Hadacol: “Why’d he call it Hadacol? Well, he hadda call it something, so … ”

Of course, the iron logic of my argument carried the day. (After all, that’s why they call me … the Big Cheese!) But the real point here was that, for a gathering of the work of thirteen utterly various writers—ranging in age from about 22 to 65, five women and eight men who are, by some happy accident of natural selection, about as diverse, ethnically and experientially, as any random group of thirteen students on this campus could possibly be—the only title that made any sense was one that made no sense at all. Thus, by some mysterious biological process that I won’t even pretend to understand, did horsepuckies metamorphose into horsefeathers. In short, we hadda call it something, so …

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about the lessons I’d like these lovely folks to have learned by the time it’s all over. There are only two, and actually they’re one and the same: Care and Attention. What you write—your language—is like a garden; whether your garden is a thousand-acre spread (War and Peace, anyone?) or a tiny nosegay of poems in a window-box, the more care and attention you lavish on it, the more grandly it will flourish, and the greater will be the reward for your labors.

And—to stretch my metaphor to the breaking point— this language garden, in order to thrive, requires fertilizer, lots of fertilizer—which is to say it requires horsepuckies and plenty of ’em, in their purest and most unadulterated form. Which is to say … stories, stories, stories!

Copyright © 2005 - 2012 Ed McClanahan. All rights reserved.