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inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #0 of 156: (dana) Thu 29 Jan 09 12:16
    
It's a pleasure to welcome Ed McClanahan to the Inkwell.

Ed McClanahan is the author of The Natural Man, Famous People I Have
Known, and several other books.  In 2003, he edited Spit in the Ocean
#7:  All About Kesey, a tribute issue of his late friend Ken Kesey's
self-published magazine.  O the Clear Moment, a "fictionalized
memoir," was published by Counterpoint in 2008.  His work has appeared
in Playboy, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and many other magazines.  He lives
in Lexington, Kentucky.

Leading the discussion is our own Scott MacFarlane.

Scott is a writer from the Skagit Valley in western Washington.  He
has been a member of The Well since April 2007 when his book, The
Hippie Narrative: A Literary Perspective on the Counterculture was also
featured on Inkwell.vue.  When not working or writing, he especially
enjoys kayak fishing in the inland salt waters of the Puget Sound.

Thank you for joining us, Ed and Scott.
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #1 of 156: Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Mon 2 Feb 09 13:25
    
Thank you, Dana.

Hi Ed.  Thank you for taking the time to join our conversation on
Inkwell.vue.  I’ve very much enjoyed reading your latest collection of
creative nonfiction, O the Clear Moment.  I also had great fun reading
your autobiographically inspired 1983 novel, The Natural Man, as well
as your other story collections.  Suffice to say, that I’ve become a
McClanafan.  

We’re here for the next couple of weeks to focus on your newest
creation, which draws from the rich life that you’ve had in the hill
country of Kentucky both growing up and upon return after two decades
in the Western U.S. where you experienced first-hand and Merry
Prankster style, the great social upheavals of the 1960’s and ’70s. 
I’m looking forward to discussing both your literary approach and some
of those fascinating life experiences you allude to in O the Clear
Moment.  Let me start with a question regarding your literary approach
as a writer: 

Late in this book, in the story “Dog Loves Ellie,” you are at your
40th high school reunion in Maysville, Kentucky, looking out from a
balcony of the new Ramada Inn:  

“a panoramic vista of northeastern Kentucky farmland stretching off to
the distant horizon, rumpled as an unmade bed, with ridges and gullies
and hollers fanning out into infinity.”

This lovely, descriptive sentence is tucked in the midst of a comic
description of your classmate Dog’s lifelong obsession with Ellie, a
high school sweetheart whom you also fancied during your adolescence.  

Without getting into too many particulars of the story (we do want the
readers here to buy the book!), this sentence, for me, was indicative
of your literary craftsmanship.  For example, “rumpled as an unmade
bed, with ridges and gullies and hollers” is a comic visual simile with
strong Southern flavoring.  However, even more than how you evoke the
image of this place, I was impressed with the way the line helps you
set up the ultimate irony of the scene.

Fifteen pages earlier in this story, with seeming innocence, you
describe yourself as a high school freshman moving to Maysville.  One
of the first jobs you have is hoeing weeds from a tobacco patch at the
edge of town.  Then, again with this passage, you are taking a
half-breath of innocent reverie during your high school reunion.  You
are in the midst of rescuing the high school sweetheart from her
obsessed ex-boyfriend, who is an “unprepossessing” and besotted forty
years older then.  You are on the balcony looking out, when you realize
this is the precise spot where you had weeded the tobacco patch.  

This scene and passage worked on several levels--, especially how this
place with its change and sameness is juxtapositioned with the core
timelessness but undeniable change of your “mature” characters.  The
way you set up the comic scene was, for me, an excellent example of the
seamlessness and subtle depth of your prose.  

Clearly, you were no “innocent” writer with your careful foreshadowing
of the later scene and the tone you present.  Your writing flows so
easily through the comic situations you depict, but, as you admit in
your closing story of this book––“The Imp of Writing: Ars
Poetica”––such appearances are illusory.  Paradoxically, the crafting
only seems effortless.  

As a writer, do you work from an outline, or do you dive in with a
premise and allow the story to emerge?  For example, with this example,
when you seized upon the ironic twist of the Ramada as the site of the
tobacco patch, did the idea become one outlined element around which
you crafted the story, or did this comic irony surface as you
progressed through the story?
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #2 of 156: Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Tue 3 Feb 09 09:22
    

1)  I love this question, Scott, because it provides me with what I
like best:  an opportunity to bloviate about how, as an excruciatingly
deliberate (not to say self-conscious) writer, I compose my stories.

For many years after I returned permanently to Kentucky in the middle
1970s, whenever I visited Maysville, I stayed at the "new" Ramada Inn,
and every time I was struck by the wonderfully ironic coincidence that
this "Air Conditioned Nightmare" (thank you, Henry Miller) was situated
on the very ridge where I'd labored in that heat-blasted tobacco patch
all one miserable summer so many years ago.  In my mind it was a
vaguely magical place, a place where two strains of my experience
(youth and age) converged, sort of like one of those tourist-trap
Mystery Spots, where gravity is turned on its head, and water
supposedly runs uphill and birds fall from the sky and what-not.

And of course the Ramada really did happen to be where I, along with
many of my old Class of '51 schoolmates, had ensconced ourselves during
our 40th reunion in 1991.  So when I was writing "Dog Loves Ellie," as
the story advanced, I began to think about precisely where it ought
properly to end, and of course the obvious answer was the Ramada, since
that was where this momentous day itself had ended.  That naturally
set me to posing "what does it all mean"
questions to myself, which in turn led me to contemplating the small
but unique role the little plot of ground where the Ramada stands had
played in my personal history.  And at that point, I went back to the
early pages of the narrative and planted a passing reference to my
tobacco-patch summer, quite specifically so that I could allow it to
re-surface when needed, near the story's end.  I suppose that amounts
to what could be considered an "artificial" manipulation of the
material--"crafty," good ol' Henry Miller would probably call it,
sneering disdainfully--, but reiteration of detail can hold a story
together, and bring purpose and direction to an otherwise aimless
narrative.   

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying No, I don't really
work from an outline, but I do like to have a game-plan or master
strategy stashed away somewhere in the back of my mind, around which
the story can develop and evolve--a grain of sand, if you will, that
aspires to become a pearl
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #3 of 156: Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Tue 3 Feb 09 09:38
    
Interesting approach, Ed. There's nothing wrong with well placed,
innocent-seeming artifice to set up later scenes.  It's fascinating to
learn how different authors approach their works.

Your literary chops yield humor through a fascinating mix of
caricature, exaggerated circumstance, word play, first person
self-deprecation, ironic juxtaposition, adolescent angst and idiom.  In
the humorous vein of Mark Twain and Flannery O’Connor, there is no
mistaking that the “imp on your shoulder” is from the South.  How do
you see your “voice” in relation to this literary tradition that has
been called Southern Grotesque?
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #4 of 156: Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Tue 3 Feb 09 09:55
    
In my misspent youth, I used to put in a lot of time hanging around
the paperback rack in the local drugstore, sneaking peeks at, among
other inspirational literature, a wonderfully trashy 35-cent novel
called Tragic Ground, by Erskine Caldwell.  The protagonist is a
downtrodden, penniless, unemployed white southern factory worker named
Spence, who is given to such gloriously colorful language as " ... like
a rabbit with his balls caught in a sewing machine!" and (my favorite)
"Dogbite my pecker!"  (Years later, I realized that Spence is just a
latter-day version of Huck Finn's Pap, a character with whom I was
already thoroughly acquainted.)  Spence has an unwashed, over-sexed,
over-ripe adolescent daughter who was just my age, and who, you may be
sure, immediately got my undivided attention.  But as I feverishly
thumbed through the book in search of the Hot Stuff, I gradually began
to discover, more or less in spite of myself, that for all his
coarseness, Caldwell had serious issues on his mind:  poverty, social
injustice, ignorance, racism, etc.  The application of these
high-minded, principled considerations to such an irrepressibly
unseemly cast of characters was, in itself, a lesson for me in ironic
juxtaposition--and in humility as well, in that it provided me with a
whole new way of thinking about some of the folks that I myself, as a
small-town Kentucky boy, was growing up among.  Eventually, I read
everything by Caldwell I could get my hands on, and even, in some of my
earliest attempts to write creatively, emulated him.  And when I moved
on to Faulkner, and still later to Flannery O'Connor, I emulated them
as well, having recognized their characters right away.
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #5 of 156: Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Tue 3 Feb 09 10:00
    
The Natural Man, was your one and only novel, as you describe the book
in this collection.  Clearly, this work of fiction borrowed heavily
from your real-life upbringing in rural, small-town Kentucky in the
1940s and ’50s, and I know you started the book in the early’60s but
didn’t finish it until the early ’80s.  With this fine novel under your
belt, why do you think you haven’t written more works of “pure”
fiction?  What draws you to shorter works of creative non-fictional
“memoir”? 
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #6 of 156: Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Tue 3 Feb 09 10:07
    

Well, first of all, let's not forget (although everybody does) A
Congress of Wonders, my little collection of three long stories, which
(because it isn't autobiographical) is perhaps "purer" fiction than is
The Natural Man, and which is to my mind the very best book I have
written, or will ever write.  (I'm hugely fond of all three of those
stories, but for the record, my all-time favorite is "Finch's Song:  A
Schoobus Tragedy.")  But I think that stories, be they fiction or
non-fiction, determine their own length, just as water seeks its own
level--and it just so happened that, except for Natural Man (and the
sequel to it that I've been plugging along on for years now), none of
my stories ever piped up and said, "Hey boss, I wanna be a novel!"  

("Finch's Song," which, like Natural Man, was written over several
decades, did make a stab at turning itself into a novel--it once
reached a puffed-up length of about 135 overwritten pages--, but then
it slowly settled back into being a mere novella, just as nature
intended.)
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #7 of 156: Steve Silberman (digaman) Tue 3 Feb 09 11:42
    
Ed, thanks for being here.  I'm really enjoying O the Clear Moment. The 
vignette about the run-in at the auto body shop was hilarious.

At the risk of asking a question in a predictable area, I'd like to focus
on Neal Cassady for a moment.  I am not naive about him;  I was a friend
of Allen Ginsberg's for 20 years, and I've read all the usual books, plus
The First Third and Neal's letters from prison.  I'm too young to have met
him, but I've heard his voice, seen the Prankster footage, and talked for
hours with his wife Carolyn.  I once had the pleasure of eating dinner in
Chinatown with Allen, Neal's son John Allen and his girlfriend, Al and
Helen Hinckle (who are Ed and Galatea Dunkel in On the Road), and Anne
Murphy as they reminisced about Neal for hours, including memories of
Denver.  Such as the time that Neal and his pals broke into a summer house
in the mountains and turned it into an ongoing tantric fiesta for a couple
of months, and Neal instituted a rule that at midnight, everyone had to
stop what they were doing and start doing it with someone else...  or the
time that he attempted to address the regrettable horniness of one of his
buddies who was confined to a wheelchair by tooling into Denver and
returning with a pretty young woman in a wheelchair announcing, "Tom, I
found the perfect girl for you!!"

So, what I want to know is this.  Like other writers and folks I respect,
you seem to have been very impressed by Neal as a person, and invoked the 
Superman metaphor to describe him.  But now that the writing is done, and 
the mytho-image-archetype is firmly established, and every Deadhead thinks 
they have an idea of who Neal was... please tell us something that No One 
Really Knew about him, something that was underappreciated or 
undernoticed even by the people who loved him best -- but that you saw, 
with your sharp writerly eye.

Thanks, and welcome!
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #8 of 156: Dana Reeves (dana) Wed 4 Feb 09 10:11
    
(Note: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added
to this conversation by emailing them to inkwell@well.com -- please
include "O the Clear Moment" in the subject line.)
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #9 of 156: David Gans (tnf) Wed 4 Feb 09 12:45
    

Hey Ed!  Great to have you here.  I loved "O the Clear Moment," too!
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #10 of 156: Donna Atwood (bratwood) Wed 4 Feb 09 13:53
    
Hi Ed! I need to catch up a bit.
In the meantime, your book is sitting next to my copy of "Me talk
pretty one day." 
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #11 of 156: Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Wed 4 Feb 09 15:20
    
Hey y'all, glad to be in this so-called space in such excellent 
company, and thank you, Steve and David, for your good responses to
OTCM. (You're gonna love it, Donna! Just ask Steve and David!)

I've pretty much exhausted my personal supply of Neal stories, Steve,
in Famous People and My Vita, If You Will.   But there was one I always
anjoyed that Kesey used to tell:  

     


   
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #12 of 156: no disrespect to our friends the chum (wiggly) Wed 4 Feb 09 16:38
    
The suspense, it it is killing me...
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #13 of 156: Steve Silberman (digaman) Wed 4 Feb 09 17:47
    
I'm trying to figure out if the silence is a koan.  :)
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #14 of 156: Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Wed 4 Feb 09 18:06
    
Sorry, Steve (et al), this is far and away the most frustrating
process I've ever found myself caught up in.  I blame it all on Stewart
Brand.  I'm now going to try again .. one mo' time!
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #15 of 156: Steve Silberman (digaman) Wed 4 Feb 09 18:24
    
Ed, don't worry.  Ease and comfort with this stuff is not far away.  We 
really appreciate you being here.  
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #16 of 156: Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Wed 4 Feb 09 19:22
    
Okay, gang, here (once again) is the Kesey/Neal story, as best I can
reconstruct it (with the occasional McClanaflourish) after thirty-five
years (not to mention three successive cyber-fuckups):

Neal, loaded on Obetrol (which Google tells me a weight-loss
amphetamine), is driving around Palo Alto in one of those old bangers
of his when he gets pulled over by The Fuzz.  (Yes, we actually called
them that.)  The cop orders him out of the car and, noting that he’s a
bit befuckled, demands, “Okay, what are you high on!”

“Obetrol, officer!” Neal chirps brightly, without a moment’s
hesitation.  “Obetrol!”

The cop, who presumably doesn’t have access to Google (this being ca.
1968), has no idea what on earth Obetrol might be, so he ignores Neal’s
answer, and instructs him (in no uncertain terms) to empty his
pockets.

“Certainly, certainly, sir, right away!” Neal says.  He stuffs his
hands into his pockets, palms his little vial of Obetrol tabs in one
hand, grabs the bottom of both pockets and pulls them inside out,
spilling a whole cascade of small change, keys, lighters, and other
pocket detritus onto the pavement at their feet.

“Pick up that shit!” the cop commands.

Neal, of course, happily obliges, blathering away all the while about
this and that as only an Irishman can do, busily picking up every
single dime and nickel and penny and re-pocketing them—along with the
vial of Obetrol.  

“All done, officer!” he assures the policeman, holding out his hands,
palms up, to demonstrate his perfect Irish innocence.

“Ah well” says the policeman, “get along with ye, thin.”
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #17 of 156: Steve Silberman (digaman) Thu 5 Feb 09 01:06
    
Excellent.  Thanks, Ed.  And thanks for braving the cyber-tsuris.
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #18 of 156: Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Thu 5 Feb 09 04:55
    
Whew!
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #19 of 156: Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Thu 5 Feb 09 07:27
    
(Stewart Brand intended The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link as a hero's
quest, perhaps. WELL, You've braved your first dragon with only a
singe, Ed!)

Speaking of Ken Kesey, you have said that you were standing in the
author’s yard at La Honda when the bus Furthur and the Merry Pranksters
departed on its picaresque trip across America.  As a fellow
Prankster, you hinted at regret that your own family obligations kept
you from joining your friends on this grand  adventure that became the
iconic “on the bus” metaphor for the countercultural epoch.   As a
Prankster insider to that scene, have you ever imagined how different
your approach might have been to telling that story than what Tom
Wolfe, a “not-on-the-bus” outsider, wrote in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid
Test? 
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #20 of 156: Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Thu 5 Feb 09 15:56
    

Gurney Norman tells an anecdote about how Ken once asked Tom, who
happened (like Gurney) to be visiting the Kesey farm up in Oregon, to
help him and Gurney extricate his old rumpsprung Cadillac convertible
from a barnyard mudhole.  (Ken liked to buy elderly Caddie ragtops and
basically drive the wheels off them, then literally put them out to
pasture, using them to haul hay out back to feed his cows.)  Wolfe, who
was wearing one of his trademark white outfits, was (understandably)
reluctant.

"See, that's the thing about Tom," Ken griped later, "he never wants
to get any on him!"

If I had made the 1964 bus trip, I woulda got plenty on me, of that
you may be sure.  But the story I would've written wouldn't have been
about the Pranksters, it would've been about me!  My writing generally
tends to be pretty self-referential, as anyone who's read my 1972
Playboy essay about the Grateful Dead knows all too well.  

So I think Truth (whatever that is) was probably much better served by
Tom--a great reporter even though he wasn't really "there"--than it
would've been if I had written some McClanaversion of the story.

I should add that Art was probably better served as well.  Ken had his
own misgivings about the effect Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test had on his
personal life--"Fame is a wart," he was (famously) fond of saying--,
but I also heard him say, more than once, that he thought it was "a
helluva book, just a helluva book."  I couldn't agree more.

(Once in a while, someone would show up at one of Ken's book signings
and present him with a copy of EKAT to sign.  "Sure!" Ken would say
delightedly ... and then he'd take the guy's book and write "Tom Wolfe"
on the flyleaf!)   

I'll mention too, in this connection, that in 1990, when Ken
resurrected Furthur and Prankishly declared his (thoroughly bogus)
intention to take it to the Smithsonian, I went along for the ride (it
was a great trip, though we only got as far as Stockton) and wrote an
essay about it all, of which I'm especially proud.  The piece,
"Furthurmore:  An Afterword," originally appeared in the Gnomon Press
edition of Famous People I Have Known, and is reprinted in my
collection titled My Vita, If You Will (Counterpoint, 1998).
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #21 of 156: Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Thu 5 Feb 09 20:30
    

Self-referential, but uproariously astute... for those who haven't had
the pleasure of reading Ed's prose, here, for your educational
expansion, he does the counterculture proud with his aforementioned
article on the Grateful Dead: 

http://www.kazart.com/bus_stop/playboy1.htm
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #22 of 156: Gary Lambert (almanac) Thu 5 Feb 09 21:06
    

Ah, lovely! One of my favorite works of music journalism ever. I still
have the original issue around somewhere (one of those rare instances
where I could refer unironically to reading Playboy for the articles!).
The description of Garcia gleefully if ineptly playing third base for
the Dead in a softball game against Jefferson Airplane is priceless.

And the self-referential quality is, I think, one of the very things
that makes the article great. As someone caught in the Dead's
gravitational pull for more than three decades as fan and employee, I
can say the "Grateful Dead I Have Known" painted a more vivid and
accurate portrait of the Grateful Dead *I* have known than any number of
pieces that aspired to present a more detatched or objective view.

Nice to finally get a chance to thank you for that, Ed!
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #23 of 156: Ed McClanahan (clammerham) Fri 6 Feb 09 06:57
    
Thank you so much, Gary.  Y'know, when the Dead piece came out in
Playboy, I thought Omigod, I'm gonna be read in every poolhall and
barbershop all across the land!  My name will be on America's lips! 
Fame is mine!

The silence, as they say, was deafening; it was as if I'd dropped the
story down a well--and now, after all these years, it resurfaces, where
else but in ... the WELL!

Actually, of course, over the years I heard from many folks who'd read
and enjoyed it.  But that was nonetheless an instructive--and
humbling--experience.  When I published another piece in Playboy a
couple of years later (about Lexington, KY's own Little Enis, "The
All-American Left-Handed Upside-down Guitar Player"), my expectations
were a lot less elevated, fer sher.

And thank you, Scott, for posting the old GD warhorse.  But because
Playboy's editors couldn't resist tarting up and trimming my story as
it was written, I'd also like to remind anyone who's interested that in
my collection titled My Vita, If You Will (Counterpoint, 1998), I
reprinted "Grateful Dead I Have Known" and restored it to its original
splendor after those accursed editorial depredations.

My Vita is no longer in print at Counterpoint, but it's available, I'm
told, via the internet in a print-on-demand version.     





   

 
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #24 of 156: Gary Burnett (jera) Fri 6 Feb 09 08:28
    
Amazon.com shows new copies of My Vita for $16.95, by the way.
  
inkwell.vue.346 : Ed McClanahan - O the Clear Moment
permalink #25 of 156: Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Fri 6 Feb 09 08:32
    
Thanks <jera>.

In this Grateful Dead piece, more than the others I've read, you write
with a stream-of-consciousness style (dithyrambic even) that's
reminiscent of the Beat writers.  Of course, the myth surrounding
Kerouac was how ON THE ROAD poured out of him spontaneously.  

It's a fascinating paradox that also seems to be at work in the
Playboy piece. Earlier, you stated how you write slowly and
deliberately, yet this richly descriptive and free-spirited work lends
the appearance of pure spontaneity, of a kaleidascope of words pouring
off your pen. Yet, when examined more closely, it's filled with some
tightly crafted prose (including my nomination for the best
extended-single-sentence-page-of-prose to emerge from the
counterculture). In other words, could you do all aspiring writers a
great service by exposing this myth of first draft fine literature that
comes from the muse like-manna-from-the-heavens?
  

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