How To Write Like Mr Kurt Vonnegut (Or Die Trying)
Mr Kurt Vonnegut Jr, New York, mid-1980s. Photograph by Mr Oliver Morris/Getty Images
The novel, it is often noted, is dead, and Mr Kurt Vonnegut, who passed away in 2007, is certainly, sadly, deader. But even when he was alive, the great American author was the first to question the validity of his chosen profession. “You’ll never make a living at being a writer,” he reportedly told students in a writing class he was teaching (although, truth be told, Mr Vonnegut did). “Hell, you may even die trying. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write. You should write for the same reasons you should take dancing lessons. For the same reason you should learn what fork to use at a fancy dinner. For the same reason you need to see the world. It’s about grace.”
But is the grace of Mr Vonnegut’s own writing something that can be taught? Ms Suzanne McConnell believes so. She was one of the students to take Mr Vonnegut’s Iowa Writers’ Workshop course in the 1960s. Now a writing tutor and editor herself, Ms McConnell has compiled Pity The Reader, a book that assembles much of the Slaughterhouse-Five author’s scattered thoughts on writing in one place, strung together in a very, well, Vonnegutian manner. So it goes.
“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth,” Mr Vonnegut once wrote. “Is this advice?” Ms McConnell asks. “It is for me. It says: You can do it. Every writer feels inept. Even Kurt Vonnegut. Just stick to your chair and keep on typing.” Here are five other writing tips from Mr Vonnegut.
Published 50 years ago this year, Slaughterhouse-Five – the book the author is best known for – dips into Mr Vonnegut’s experiences as a soldier in WWII and the bombing of Dresden, which Mr Vonnegut witnessed as a prisoner of war. But it took another conflict some 20 years later for the author to actually write it. “I think the Vietnam War freed me and other writers,” he said when asked about Slaughterhouse-Five. “We could finally talk about something bad that we did… And what I saw, what I had to report, made war look so ugly. You know, the truth can be really powerful stuff. You’re not expecting it.”
Which is to say that good things, or at least the means to write about bad things, come to those who wait. “Novelists are not only unusually depressed, by and large, but have, on average, about the same IQs as the cosmetics consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store,” Mr Vonnegut wrote. “Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”
Be more patient, still
It’s not just writing that takes time; inspiration can be fleeting at best. “A young woman to whom I was teaching Creative Writing at City College NY years ago, confessed to me, half-ashamed, as though this was keeping her from being a truly creative writer, that she had never seen a dead person,” writes Mr Vonnegut. “I put my hand on her shoulder, and I said, ‘One must be patient.’”
Writing is a form of therapy
“It may have taken Kurt Vonnegut 23 years to find the way to write directly about the firebombing of Dresden,” Ms McConnell writes. “But if you read his fiction in sequence up to that point, you’ll see him flirting with it, using it, skewing it, working his way up to it.” Indeed, the way Mr Vonnegut speaks about writing suggests that for him, and others, it was a form of therapy, of dealing with experiences and memories. “People will continue to write novels, or maybe short stories, because they discover that they are treating their own neuroses,” he wrote. “Writing was a spiritual exercise for my father,” his son, Mr Mark Vonnegut, noted, “the only thing he really believed in.”
Whatever you write, put your heart into it
“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about,” Mr Vonnegut wrote in The New York Times in 1980. “It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way – although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.”
Ignore all of this advice entirely
Working as an editor in the 1950s, Mr Vonnegut returned an author’s manuscript with seven suggestions on how to improve the novel. “Most important of all was his advice that I should not follow any of his suggestions ‘just because I suggested them,’” revealed the author Mr Vonnegut was assisting. In his course, Mr Vonnegut later went further, encouraging students to ignore his own legacy and that of other writers entirely. “I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far,” he wrote. “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”
Pity The Reader by Mr Kurt Vonnegut and Ms Suzanne McConnell. Image courtesy of Seven Stories Press