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Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.

cuckoo's nest for writers

Want to know how to write a novel? Read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey.

I saw the movie…40 years ago? I just read the book.

There’s so much to talk about. It’s a great book (but not without controversy) and another day we’ll get into what the book’s about.

If you’re a student of the craft of novel writing, you know the rules. And as you try hard to stick the rules, you see so many successful novels that break them. Cuckoo’s Next follows the rules. And is brilliant for it.

Plot Summary:

Randle McMurphy is serving a sentence at a prison work farm and gets himself committed to a mental hospital in hopes of doing his time in a cushier setting.

The Beginning:

McMurphy arrives at the hospital. No backstory. No set-up. No character development. No prologue, just story. In medias res. The way it’s supposed to be.

Point-of View:

The rules say to tell the story from one perspective. Yes, modern sensibilities allow for multiple points-of-view, but that approach is fraught with potential trouble. One point-of-view is the safe choice.

Cuckoo’s Nest is told from the point-of-view of mental patient, Chief Bromden, a Native-American. Everything is told from his perspective. If Chief doesn’t see it, we don’t see it. Chief can only surmise character motivations based on what he sees and what others may tell him. The author doesn’t jump around and tell us what the other characters are thinking. It’s all from Chief’s point of view. No omniscient narrator. And because we know what he thinks, we know much more about him than any other character.

The Protagonist:

McMurphy is the protagonist. That doesn’t mean he is the most virtuous character in the book. That’s probably Chief Bromden. McMurphy is the classic anti-hero. He’s not a good guy, but he’s very likable. And as he hustles his fellow patients, he does it in a way that lifts their spirits. Everybody loves him. Everybody but Nurse Ratched.

The Antagonist:

Sometimes the antagonist in a novel isn’t a person, but something keeping the protagonist from reaching his/her goal. McMurphy fighting the system? Well, yes, but the antagonist in Cuckoo’s Nest is not so amorphous. It’s Nurse Ratched. No doubt about it. One of the most unlikable characters I’ve ever met. She’s not evil in a Bond villain kind of way; she’s just cold and mean and against McMurphy in every way. The lines are drawn. The reader wants McMurphy to win. And Ratched to lose.

The Ending:

I’ve read that in classic literature, there is comedy and tragedy. The comedy isn’t necessarily funny; it’s prime characteristic is the happy ending. The tragedy is just the opposite.

Cuckoo’s Nest is a tragedy. The happy ending may give you a moment of contentment, but the tragedy stays with you, haunts you, makes you think. What might have been? What if McMurphy had won? What if Nurse Ratched had lost? Could it have made a difference for Billy Bibbit? And what of Chief Bromden? Did he ever make it home?

If you read this 50 year-old novel, you’ll be jarred by some references that are considered offensive today. But is it Kesey or his characters making the references? The characters, of course. They’re flawed. But does that give Kesey license to let them say what they do? We’ll get into that in more detail later. What Kesey does that’s indisputable is craft a story that takes you to the edge of realism at a pace that seems perfect. In the second half of the book, when the story rolls like a boulder down a mountain, he does nothing to get in the way. It’s a great example of plot and character development in perfect sync.

Read and learn, fellow writers.

gone crazy, girl

purple mountains laced in haze
holding back the morning rays
singing possibilities
that echo through the hills

morning peace and your sweet grace
to live as one for all our days
freedom ringing endlessly
for all the world to hear

but you’ve gone crazy, girl
you got lazy, girl
so full of anger, girl
you know i’ll never leave

can’t call you baby, girl
won’t let me hold you, girl
can’t even love me, girl
you know i’ll never leave

the days are growing shorter now
dimming on forgotten vows
words are spoken bitterly
to blunt enduring hope

you say you’ve not abandoned me
you want what’s best, i just can’t see
you shout so condescendingly
it makes it hard to hear

but you’ve gone crazy, girl
you got lazy, girl
hard to love you, girl
you know i’ll never leave

someday you’ll see, it could be worse
you’ll sing the song and write the verse
and play the music fervently
the righteous to uplift

but you’ve gone crazy, girl
you got lazy girl
don’t want to know me, girl
you know i’ll never leave

or maybe you’ve just lost your mind
the damage done, too far maligned
we’re dying unrepentingly
the setting of the sun

but you’ve gone crazy, girl
you got lazy, girl
won’t let me pray for you, girl
i hope i’ll never leave


copyright 2019, joseph e bird


she is america. faking dylan, as larry would say.

serpico

one of my favorite movies of all time.

al pacino, as good as he’s ever been, as the gritty honest cop, frank serpico. based on the true story of the real frank serpico.

forty years later, i watched it again. it wasn’t as good.

ever hear of chauncey gardner? peter sellers as the title character in Being There. another one of my all-time favorites. but upon further review…

not quite.

seems what i remember is not what i remember.

books are the same way. the fountainhead, ayn rand’s masterpiece, with the iconic howard roark. it’s a great book, but after a few years away, it’s no longer at the top of my list.

is it me? have my sensibilities changed?

of course. and then again, my good memories tend to dominate the bad.

but i’m thinking i’m going to keep the good memories warm. no more bursting the bubble of what i remember. same with people. i remember old friends fondly, forgetting their faults and the things that drove me crazy. then when i see them on the street, it’s a good moment.

i hope they do the same for me.

ho hey, cleopatra

more music on this cool saturday morning.

the Lumineers, the band that may have started that whole ho! hey! thing a few years ago, tell pretty good stories in their songs. i had heard Cleopatra and was confused about what the song was about until I heard this.

here’s how it came together.

and here’s the song.

saturday morning music

if you haven’t listened to tyler childers, here you go.

Lord the wind can leave you shiverin’
As it waltzes o’er the leaves
It’s been rushin’ through my timber
Til’ your love brought on the spring
Now the mountains all are blushin’
And they don’t know what to say
‘Cept a good long line of praises
For my lovely Lady May

how did i get here?

you may ask yourself

Sunday, October 27. Mingo County, West Virginia.

We’re visiting my brother-in-law, Paul, at the nursing home on top of the mountain in Williamson. It’s a typical visit. We bring Coca-Colas and 7-Ups. Not Pepsi. Not Sprite. Coca-Colas and 7-Ups. We drop them off at the dining hall where a local gospel group is beginning to play. Two men, two women. An acoustic guitar wired to a little Fender amp. They sing loudly, all feeling, no nuance. Gathered around are the usual assortment of residents in wheelchairs.

Paul is there but he has no interest in staying so we go back to his room to visit a little. After a while, it’s time to leave. We hear the music from the dining hall so we go back to listen for a bit.

The music is as country gospel as you can get, full of twang and southern West Virginia. They’re singing a song I’ve never heard.

I Can’t Even Walk Without You Holding My Hand.

Of course not like the video I just linked, but it’s the same song.

And there’s a lady lying horizontal in a wheelchair, clutching her sippy cup, her eyes closed. And she’s singing along.

In the back is another lady mouthing the words.

Gertrude, who says she’s ready to be with the Lord, is singing too.

John Michael looks to be in his thirties. He wheels up and asks for a microphone and one of the ladies obliges. John Michael sings his heart out, even if his voice is not what he wants it to be.

It’s hard not to be touched.

We finally leave and make our usual stop at Mickey D’s for coffee for the long ride home. Over the sound system, the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime, is playing.

I remember the quirky alternative-rock song from so many years ago and it gets stuck in my head. I can’t remember all the words and when I get home I find it and play it.

you may ask yourself,
well, how did i get here?

David Byrne’s philosophical musings about how life blazes by and here we are. How did we get here?

Most folks in the nursing home are probably not prone to introspection, but there a few. I’ve talked with a veteran with no legs and he may ask himself.

Larry has family issues that haunt him. He may ask himself.

Our friend Peggy would. My God, what have I done? Not a question she would ask in vain, but a sincere pleading.

And so it goes.

Same as it ever was.

i could see it coming.

And then comes Lawrence.

He cruised in on his bicycle, coasting to a stop at the top of the hill, looking down on us.

I had no idea who he was, this older, skinny, scraggly guy with no shirt, riding a bicycle with streamers on the handle bars and a horn on the front. He was older, but I know now that it was by no more than ten years. Still old enough to not be riding around on a pimped-out, beater-bike, old enough to have better things to do than look for company with school kids, old enough to have enough sense to recognize real trouble in the form of Brando and Kevin, who had enough mean in them to put some serious torment onto the meek and the lowly, and all it would take was the sniff of arrogance, the notion that Brando and Kevin, though physically superior to almost all who crossed their paths, were not on the same playing field intellectually, or that over time, righteousness would reign and the meek and the lowly would indeed inherit the earth, and the beast would be cast into the lake of fire. As I would learn much later in life, God’s plans are fulfilled in God’s time where a day is like a thousand years and though justice would eventually prevail, it might not come soon enough for the victims of Brandon and Kevin. The scars of their torment could linger for years.

And so I wondered, what of Lawrence?

But I could see it coming.


copyright 2019, joseph e bird

This is an excerpt of a story in progress and is fiction, although it is based on true events. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

will the circle be unbroken

I just finished watching a 16-hour documentary, Ken Burns’ Country Music.

I didn’t want it to end.

My music of choice has been rock and roll. Rhythm and blues. Funk. Soul. Classical. Americana. Roots. Never country. Almost never.

There was my Dwight Yoakam period. Guitars, Cadillacs, and Hillbilly Music. He was so country and old-school, he was hip.

Not long after that, Johnny Cash teamed up with Rick Rubin and produced American Recordings. Cash was old, the production bare, stripped down to Cash’s raspy, but still strong voice singing Nine Inch Nails and gospel and old folk songs. One of my favorite albums of all time.

I knew a little about Hank Williams. Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly. Williams died in Oak Hill, West Virginia.

Kathy Mattea was born just a few miles from where I was.

And somehow I knew that the music I listen to now, The Avett Brothers, Tyler Childers, Parker Milsap, has its roots in country music.

And then there’s this whole songwriting thing I’ve been tinkering with.

So when I heard about the Ken Burns film, I knew I was going to watch it from beginning to end.

And here’s the thing. Yes, it’s about music. There are beautiful voices, virtuoso instrumental performances, showmanship and charisma. But also performers who wouldn’t make the first cut in today’s made-for-tv singing competitions. Modest talent. Three chords and the truth. The truth being what it’s really all about. Triumph and joy, but more often struggle and heartbreak. Stories set to music. No achy-breaky heart. More like Roseanne Cash singing I Still Miss Someone at her father’s memorial.

If you’re a writer, you’ll find inspiration in the film. If you’re a songwriter, you should be required to watch it. It features some of the best songwriters ever.

I’m so lonesome I could cry. – Hank Williams

I’d trade all my tomorrows, for one single yesterday. – Kris Kristoferson

I’m crazy for trying, crazy for crying,
and I’m crazy for loving you. – Willie Nelson

Go rest high on that mountain
Son, your work on earth is done.
Go to heaven a-shoutin’
Love for the Father and the Son. – Vince Gill

I think I may be the only who saw it. Every time I try to start a conversation about it, seems like no one else has watched it.

Have you? If not, you can still watch the entire film online. Click the link below.

https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/country-music/

you must watch this

mercy.

i can’t begin to describe this video.

if you are a runner, you must watch this.

if you are an introspective person, you must watch this.

if you are awed by the forces of our natural world, you must watch this.

and if you watch this, you must watch until the very end.

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