Lidia Yuknavitch: The Time I Snuck Into Ken Kesey’s Fiction Class
On Fitting in with Misfits, from Ken Kesey to Melissa Febos
My home life in my teens was claustrophobic, abusive, a horror. Simultaneously, I was not fitting into any group or clique at school. My only safety was aloneness. So it felt like there was nowhere to exist—not at home, not at school. Watching or reading a character go through that kind of isolation from weirdness or difference to, if not social integration, then at least a moment of social meaning, can literally put our souls back together. I can watch the character now and love him, cheer for him, glory in his last weird dance exactly like the audience does in the movie when they stand and clap. I still own a pair of the original moon boots. Sometimes I wear them to feel privately fantastic.
I used to watch the films One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and To Kill A Mockingbird on my birthday. They were, for a long while in my twenties, my favorite movies and books. In both, the misfits have moments of glory—like when Boo Radley saves both Scout and Scout’s brother, Jem, how he leaves treasures in a tree for children to find. Or when Randle takes the “nuts” out boating and fishing by persuading them to pose as doctors. Or when Chief reveals that he is neither deaf nor mute, and smiles wider than an Oregon river. Or when Chief throws that goddamn sink thing straight out the window and leaves the mental health ward that is murdering their souls forever.
I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seven times and read the novel three times before I ever met the author, Ken Kesey. How I came to meet him was that I infiltrated a creative writing class at the University of Oregon. I was a returning undergraduate at the time, having flunked out in Texas. My friend Meredith was a graduate student in the MFA program. When Ken Kesey agreed to teach a yearlong fiction writing class, Meredith smuggled me in. So my first big-time writing class was basically a combined act of infiltration and accident.
You could say that Ken Kesey was the epitome of a misfit, if misfits aspire toward such a thing. And we do. Everything he ever wrote and every moment of his life resisted conforming to anything else around him. To be entirely honest with you, if I had not met him when I did, a year after the death of my daughter, shortly after I discovered weird writing coming out of me from nowhere, I might have missed the profoundly important portal that opened up right in front of me that brought me to my life as a writer. In several ways that count, he was much more important to me than my father.
And if he had not whispered into my ear the words that he did the first time I met him, “I know what happened to you. Death’s a motherfucker,” bonding us in a single second with two dead children between us, my beautiful tiny girl infant and his beautifully strong wrestler son, second selves, hovering between our bodies, I don’t know if I would have trusted anyone or anything in the world again.
Sometimes a single sentence whispered from the mouth of a misfit can change your life.
I’ve written about what it was like to walk into a room and meet Ken Kesey for the first time. I’ve written about the yearlong novel-writing class, how we lived in a rented house off and on near campus with Kesey, how we visited his farm in Pleasant Hill, how we came to understand various other misfit characters like Wavy Gravy and Garrison Keillor and Tim Leary and Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson and the strange wonder that was Neal Cassady, whose ghost image we only saw in home movies.
I wondered where and how the women fit into the story. Or maybe I longed for it, long for it still.
Kesey went to the University of Oregon, the main reason I chose that college. He graduated in 1957, and after that he had a fellowship at Stanford, where he wrote Cuckoo’s Nest. The inspiration for the novel came from his work on the night shift at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital. Because Kesey was Kesey, he’d get high on hallucinogens and talk to the patients there. He told us much later in life in that yearlong class we took with him that he did not believe the patients were insane, but rather that society had outcast them because they did not fit the conventional ideas of how people were supposed to act and behave. Maybe knowing Kesey is how I came to understand the possibility that being a misfit isn’t nothing.
That it might, in fact, be everything.
After Kesey moved to La Honda, California, he began hosting hippie artist happenings and became part of the Merry Pranksters; he was a proponent of marijuana and LSD. In 1965, Kesey was arrested for marijuana possession as well as a faked suicide, and he spent about six months in jail.
In 2014, marijuana was legalized in Oregon. Today, the pot business is thriving. I can’t help but wonder about that. One year you can be arrested and put in jail for something that years later will become legal.
Truths change. Stories are what happen between truth’s ever-changing incarnations. Misfits tell the best stories because our very lives depend on navigating an ever-changing reality.
Quite often, misfits turn into artists of one sort or another. Making art is the most intense form of expression available to humans, and it is a real place where a misfit can not only exist, but also find community without judgment. Artists are very good at stepping into and owning their misfit natures, because we want to live at the edges of culture, since the center didn’t make any sense to us and made us feel ugly or fat or stupid or crazy or weird or deviant or unwelcome. Art is a kind of cultural medicine. Sometimes, for example, when you give juvenile offenders a canvas or a blank page or a musical instrument and let them access self-expression, their self-destruction begins to change and even fall away. Not always, but sometimes.
Sometimes misfit artists turn into misfit addicts. Kesey was and wasn’t an addict. That’s not an easy sentence to understand the way we see things today, but it’s true.
What I haven’t written about is just how much I miss him. It hurts that he is gone. It’s as if he took something with him that he was in the middle of handing to me, to us, and then he died, leaving us reaching. Maybe that’s a good thing—that he left us reaching. Maybe the fact that he showed us that we were not alone, that we could walk into a room and for once feel that, mercifully, there were others, and that his death kept us reaching . . . Maybe that’s a kind of misfit inspiration. But I find his spirit in so many others.
I first met my brilliant and beautiful friend Melissa Febos on the page when I read her memoir Whip Smart, in which she describes the four years she worked as a dominatrix in a Midtown dungeon. She described that part of her life as a “hell of her own making,” an idea I could relate to, as well as her experiences as a high school dropout and her drug and alcohol use. Let me tell you, her story is one of the most bold and clear expressions of the human condition I have ever clapped eyes on. Later in life when I met her in person, I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that our body stories made a helix of sorts. In some ways I think of her as a sister, certainly of the body and soul, even as our lives are not the same. I feel like our life story evolutions carry pieces of each other. Here is her story about being a misfit artist.
I do think that the experience of being a misfit in the respect that you name—being an outsider up against social norms—was a problem in my own experience that found a solution in artmaking. By “problem,” I mean in the sense that Chekhov meant when he said “the task of the writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.” Which is to say, being a misfit and incapable of conforming to social norms was painful, it was incontrovertible, and it forced me to find my truest calling, which has been so profound and that I would not trade for any better kind of fit. I was a strange and secretive child who buried things in the backyard, was aware of my queerness very young, and read books with the same voracity that I later shot heroin. My mother was a bisexual, feminist, Buddhist psychotherapist who raised me vegetarian and corrected the sexism of my children’s books with a Sharpie, and my father was a Puerto Rican sea captain. I say all this to make the point that there was no getting around it: I was different; we were different.
Those differences led me to a lot of dark places, and by “dark” I mean not illuminated by cultural reference and acknowledgment, or curtained by stigma. For instance, my discomfort with the power dynamics I experienced, particularly as a woman, coupled with my interest in chasing down my own sexual curiosity and hunger, led me to answering an ad in the Village Voice when I was 21. There was no mirror in the world of television and school and magazines for the kind of female I was, the kind of feminine. For models of tenderness and catharsis that included violence. So I showed up at this secret place in Midtown Manhattan, and there I created a persona, a character of myself whom I called by a different name—Justine—through whom I could embody and enact these parts of me that seemed misfit in the brighter world outside those rooms. I remember once relating to this client of mine, a Hasidic man 30 years my senior, who described the shame and loneliness inherent in his secret life, in which he frequented our “dungeon.” Similarly, I found identification among the junkies with whom I copped and used in my late teens and early twenties—we had all ended up in seemingly corrupt places out of a desire to solve or comfort or find company in our misfit parts. And in many ways, those places met our need.
I have found that I can even better meet that need with art and other artists. I can go to all the dark places (without risking my life) and find companions as a result of sharing my journeys. And all the aspects of my strangeness and my family’s strangeness—our misfittedness—have factored into the art I make in a very transparent way. All my work tells secrets, and I use the vocabulary I gleaned from my origins—psychotherapy textbooks, the texts I read over and over, and the catalog of images that filled my childhood. I suspect that there are writers who didn’t come to writing as a method of survival, of carving a space in the world that they would fit in, but I don’t actually know any writers like that. My friends and peers are a pretty self-selecting group, and we found each other precisely because of our common misfittedness; those odd angles are the things we most share and love in each other.
To me, art is that most profound form of expression because it integrates the body, experience, intellect, and the senses. It is the most holistic and therefore the most precise way of articulating our humanity. In it, we can see most quickly how alike we are, how not alone. In the most general terms, I would define it that way.
For me, personally, it is that and more. My nature is one of avoidance and dissociation, one of constant motion. I’m compulsive, addictive, pleasure-seeking, conflict avoidant, and all these inherent qualities would have killed me, quite literally, if not for writing. The momentum of my appetites—as when I was an active drug addict, a sex worker, and in bondage to an excoriating and relentless love affair—is not an easy thing to arrest, let alone reverse. The only thing that can do it is intense self-scrutiny coupled with the love and witness of other people, and possibly also, God (whatever that may mean). Carl Jung described addiction as a lowlevel spiritual quest, and suggested that the only cure is a spiritual awakening, and connection with other people.
Once, when I was in the midst of that relentless love affair, I called my mother. I was crying every single day, completely obsessed with my lover and trying to wrest from her some kind of security that was simply more than any single human can give another, and the rest of my life was basically in shambles. I didn’t confide in many people, because I found my messiness and my need so repulsive and humiliating. But this one day I just called my mom. “I’m a wreck,” I told her. “I can’t stop crying.” And she told me this story about how I had been a colicky baby, and how as an older child I simply stopped crying. My dad would be leaving for sea voyages, a thing that had always been very painful, and one day I just stopped crying completely. In that short exchange, something important happened. First, I exposed my supposed brokenness to someone else. Secondly, as a result, I was offered some context for it. That little bit of information somehow “normalized” my wrecked state, made a kind of sense of it. And it was right after that that I decided to write about it.
That is, I think all my “self-destructive” impulses are misguided attempts at connection, at looking for a higher power in unqualified places. And writing is my solution. In it, I am able to look at myself, and I am able to expose myself to other people. In that vulnerable place I become capable of both giving and receiving love. I find something more qualified in which to thrust my faith, something that can hold all of it, all of me.
So, I think “artistic practice” is survival. It is community. It is forgiveness. It is my religion and my god, or my channel to God.
I think “regular people” can learn how to acknowledge their own misfit parts by watching us do it. When I published my first book, in which I describe smoking crack and spanking strangers and feeling like the only woman in the world with so many secrets, I was shocked to discover how many strangers, how many “regular people,” identified with my experience. They hadn’t smoked crack or been sex workers, but they had felt howlingly alone inside their own experiences. My story, of accepting my dark parts, and the airing of that story, gave them license to hope the same might be possible for them.
Performing this inhabitation of self is a great service, I think. It is the most beautiful kind of martyrdom, in which you sacrifice your own comfort (temporarily), your own secrecy, your own shabby means of fake fitting-in, for the benefit of witnesses, of “regular people” (or, as I like to call them, “civilians”). But, instead of dying, you get to be free. And they get to see that it is possible.
Instead of dying, we get to be free. I love that idea so very much. In some ways I think that all artists are misfits, and what I see when I think about that is that we are the edges of a shape that contains everyone else. We are the edges that define whether or not the center will hold and what shape will eventually emerge. I think art is the most profound form of human expression available. We keep culture breathing.
Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Misfit’s Manifesto is available now from Ted Books.