Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Spending Time With Ken Kesey ... And Others

Ken Kesey and I have been spending late nights together. That's one of the great things about literature ... the ability to spend time with an author even though he has been dead for almost 10 years. His work lives on.

I have been struck by Kesey's opening to "Sometimes a Great Notion" when compared to some of the publishing do's and don'ts that many agents accent. One don't is, "Don't put backstory early in your novel." Another rule, judging by just about everything I've read lately, is to make chapters shorter ... don't let things drag on.

So what is Kesey's opening to "Great Notion" all about? The first chapter is nearly 45 pages long. Almost all of it is backstory. I can imagine Kesey's reaction if some agent tried to tell him that opening would never work. Oh, my, what a ruckus!!!! Pity that poor agent.

One of the early mentors in my journalistic career was a brilliant man named Lyman Jones. He had been a top editor at one of the Dallas newspapers, but he had an affinity for the drink. It caused him problems and he bounced around. I had to bail him out of jail one night, and we both went to a San Francisco Giants game one Sunday in what was one of the most memorable days of my young life. I will relate that story sometime, but not today.

I met Lyman while we both worked at The Sebastopol Times in Northern California in the late 1970s. It was a weekly newspaper, and Lyman knew the old curmudgeon who ran the paper, an equally memorable character named Ernie Joiner, from their days in Texas. Lyman wasn't around for that long. He just suddenly disappeared one day, and I haven't seen him since. He always claimed that he could just vanish and take on a new identity if he wanted to.

Anyway, he was a great mentor. As I said, he was a brilliant man, exceptionally intelligent. I take one bit of advice he told me to heart. He said I must learn every rule of proper English, then break those rules when the situation calls for it. He said some of the greatest works of the language had been done by people who had committed such violations.

I think Lyman and Kesey would have had some enjoyable moments together, and they would have rebelled at some agents these days.

I can still spend time with Kesey because of what he left behind. I wish I could do the same with Lyman. But I will write on with their lessons as part of my life.

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