I came across a fascinating article today by Carolyn Know-Quinn on a collaborative writing class conducted by Ken Kesey and students from the University of Oregon in 1990. The collaboration lasted an entire academic year – three terms – and culminated in the publication of a novel, Caverns, published by Viking in 1990 under the pseudonym of U.O. Levon.
Kesey’s view is that he wanted to teach writing, not re-writing.
“You teach wrestling by having guys get out and wrestle. You teach basketball by having them play basketball, and you teach writing by having them sit and write. Writing and rewriting are different things. A lot of college people learn how to rewrite well, but not how to write well. I've had an interesting thought lately. You don't become Isaac Stern to make a recording. You become Isaac Stern to play the violin. You don't learn to write just to publish. You learn to write so that you can write; you can feel it flowing through you.”
And so, rather than students all working on their own material and coming to class to read and discuss it, Kesey’s class was completely hands-on. They started with character. Each student was asked to describe a character on card, looking at his needs, motivations etc. From there, once the characters were agreed, the plot began to emerge, and they started to write it, together. They wrote, edited, re-wrote, edited, then finally, in the third term, performed it. Classes were three hours long, and work was done on a computer with a large screen so that people could see it. Kesey explains:
This is how, as a professional, I can teach stuff. I couldn't teach writing without doing it. I have to be writing this stuff. People have to be looking over your shoulder [at the monitor] as you do this, as you see that this phrase here is redundant and this is bad. Outside of the context of the thing, general abstractions don't work, unless you've got something specific for it to go on.
It’s a fascinating approach, I have to say, and I can’t help feeling it would work especially well with particular groups, like disengaged young men and students on alternative key stage 4. Obviously not a novel length, which would be way too long, but something shorter: the collaborative, participative nature would perhaps help pull them in. Certainly food for thought.