I remember my first Vonnegut binge.
While browsing the Internet as I do, I stumbled onto one of Vonnegut’s interviews for the Paris Review. The damn thing was 10 pages long, but I was hooked in an instant.
I printed out the transcript. I read it three times. By the time I was done with it, the margins were drowning in notes. But that wasn’t enough.
The next day, I went on Amazon, bought all of his books I could afford, and started a delightful, months-long Vonnegut reading binge.
My favorite source of Vonnegut wisdom are his Letters. This eclectic collection of correspondence is rich with striking advice on writing, creativity and the art of living well.
I’ve included my favorites bits below.
I. On skipping college
Somebody should have told me not to join a fraternity, but to hang out with the independents, who were not then numerous. I would have grown up faster that way. Somebody should have told me that getting drunk, while fashionable, was dangerous and stupid. And somebody should have told me to forget about higher education, and to go to work for a newspaper instead. That is what a lot of the most promising and determined young writers used to do back then. Nowadays, of course, you can’t get a job on a newspaper if you don’t have a college education. Too bad.
II. On the stuff of greatness
No man who achieved greatness in the arts operated by himself; he was top man in a group of like-minded individuals. The school gives a man […] the fantastic amount of guts it takes to add to culture. It gives him morale, esprit de corps, the resources of many brains, and — maybe most important — one-sidedness with assurance. […] About this one-sidedness: I’m convinced that no one can amount to a damn in the arts if he becomes sweetly reasonable, seeing all sides of a picture, forgiving all sins.
Note: Isaac Asimov once mentioned that the most important thing for being a prolific writer is self-assurance. You must believe in your ideas.
III. On burning books
In response to the burning of Vonnegut’s book at a school in Drake, North Dakota —
…books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own. […] It was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books — books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.
IV. On the loneliness of writing
I’m sorry that you are tired of living such a lonely life, but I will bet you that you can’t do a damn thing about it without changing your profession. I have met a lot of writers by now, and they all carry twenty acres of Sahara Desert with them wherever they go. I have no idea what the explanation for this is, other than the necessary smallness of their organizations.
V. On advice from parents
Most letters from a parent contain a parent’s own lost dreams disguised as good advice. My good advice to you is to pay somebody to teach you to speak some foreign language, to meet with you two or three times a week and talk. Also: get somebody to teach you to play a musical instrument. What makes this advice especially hollow and pious is that I am not dead yet. If it were any good, I could easily take it myself.
VI. On crises of identity
Skills are magical, or I always think so anyway, whenever I see people who have them. You say you are having an identity crisis. Well, the people who seem to have the strongest senses of identity are persons who have real skills and do respectable work.
VII. On art as conversation
Contemplating a purported work of art is a social activity. Either you have a good time or you don’t. You don’t have to say why afterwards. You don’t have to say anything. People capable of loving some paintings or etchings or whatever can rarely do this without knowing something about the artist. Again, the situation is social rather than scientific. Any work of art is one half of a conversation between two human beings, and it helps a lot to know who is talking at you. Does he or she have a reputation for seriousness, for sincerity? There are virtually no beloved or respected paintings made by persons of whom we know nothing. We can even surmise a lot about the lives of whoever did the paintings in the caves underneath Lascaux, France. So I dare to suggest that no picture can attract serious attention without a human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind.
VIII. On the education of a writer
It takes about two years for a student to show important changes in his ability to write. Creative writing programs lasting only a semester or a year simply don’t allow enough time for growth. Ideally, the student should have the same teacher for two years. The teacher should think of assisting the student to become a writer, rather than think of teaching the student how to write. The teacher should watch for clues as to what the student is attempting to become, then help the student to become that. It is cruel and destructive to make the student try to become something he was not meant to become. He can become only what he was meant to be.
In a separate interview…
In a creative writing class of twenty people anywhere in this country, six students will be startlingly talented. Two of those might actually publish something by and by. [The two] will have something other than literature itself on their minds. They will probably be hustlers, too. I mean that they won’t want to wait passively for somebody to discover them. They will insist on being read.
IX. On the secret of universality
The secret of universality is provincialism. Don’t open a window and make love to the world. Literary masterpieces since the birth of the novel and short story have all been obsessed with narrow societies, Emma Bovary’s, Leopold Bloom’s, about which most readers cannot be expected to know much. They’ll learn, those readers will. A writer is first and foremost a teacher.
That’s a peek at the wisdoms to be found inside Vonnegut’s Letters. I’ve covered the poor thing in highlights.
Now then, it’s back to reading for me.