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