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The Writing Life: Advice from a Counterculture Icon

“First rule: Do not use semicolons. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Despite his semicolon antipathy, Kurt Vonnegut never fails to make me think, laugh — and write.

Everyone should read at least one Kurt Vonnegut book — Welcome to the Monkey House and Mother Night are my favorites. They’re blunt. Dark. Demanding. And they make you think, and laugh, and want to be a better person. What more can we ask of literature, and what better person to turn to for tough love on writing?

It’s not surprising that his thoughts on art, writing, and the writing life are just as thought-provoking, funny, and inspiring…

If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

A Man Without a Country

… that they tear down our pretensions and keep us focused on the craft …

Novelists have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetic consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. 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.

Palm Sunday

… and that they’re direct, pointed, and eminently useful:

Here is Creative Writing 101:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.

Bagombo Snuff Box

In the end, what I love is how he helps me focus on the writing itself. Not the moral or lesson or the conceptual leaps of what I’m trying to communicate — just the words, and how they build on one another into phrases, then sentences, then stories, and then big ideas:

There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.

Slaughterhouse-Five

He’s a needed reminder of the power in each of our pens.

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  1. Vonnegut is one of those writers who I know of, but don’t really know. I’ve read plenty of quotes by him and none of his books. This piece has reminded me to give him a proper read, thanks. I might stop using semi-colons too.

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  2. This is a great post, Michelle. i will have to order one of his books – I especially liked the Creative Writing 101 list. I am not a novelist but I do believe that good writing is very important for my blog. I have stopped reading blogs that were poorly written because I find if it isn’t written well, it doesn’t say anything of use. What I like about your writing, and what comes through in this post, is your excitement about good writing and for your subject. Your excitement is contagious.

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  3. I read this about building the words into sentences and phrases (or was it the other way ’round?), and realize that my pen (or in this case, keyboard) is often more daring than my brain. It takes me where I didn’t intend to go and leaves me there sometimes, stranded and wondering how I got there and how to get back to my original thought.

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  4. I’d start with Slaughterhouse Five, his best IMHO, and then watch the brilliant movie adaptation and ponder the beauty of man’s artistic creations versus the horror of man’s military creations.

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  5. “If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding.”  

    this made ma laugh out loud.   i’m not kidding. thanks, michelle.. great post!

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  6. I’ve only read one book of his, Breakfast of Champions, which I borrowed from the library when I was fifteen. Back in those days I was into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story David Swan (analyzing it to death) and his other works, so I didn’t know what to expect from a modern-day author. Needless to say I was startled when I finally started reading the book.

    Though, as I’ve said, I have read just one Kurt Vonnegut book, he has truly impacted me as a writer. His is influence came in handy even when I was writing plays and when I was features editor for a paper; there I was able to guide features writers to be unafraid to tell it like it is.

    The novel, when I read it, didn’t seem long to me; and it made me marvel at the relatively larger typography used for it. It also had a lot of what I called doodles (some would call them sketches). The things that he had been famous for – his characters that uncannily resembled prominent people in society and himself (such as Dwayne Hoover as Nelson-Rockefeller-like and Kyle Trout who was a science fiction writer like himself, and who even wrote like him), his unapologetic critical sarcasm and his crossing of boundaries in writing itself, all make his stinging, perceptive social commentary on the state of the world, couched in fiction, well worth reading. 🙂

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  7. I loved reading this. My enthusiasm to write severely outweighs both my skill and confidence so this is exactly what I needed, thank you!

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  8. I have to say that while I do appreciate his writing, Kurt V has gone in depth about how he created his counter culture image in order to sell books. It is something that is as contrived as movie star personas and ghost writing for a preconcieved voice.

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