Alas, poor Vonnegut

So it goes.

In my teens, I read everything up through Jailbird. His simple writing style, combined with the fact that he was from Indianapolis, made me believe (secretly) that I could become a writer, too. Then in college I decided I had outgrown him and stopped reading his books. Many years later, he came to talk to us at Iowa. He walked into the crowded room, made his way to the table in front, pulled an ashtray from his rumpled coat pocket and clanged it on the table. "You can't smoke in here," he reminded us. "But I can." He told us that the thing writers do is important. He told us we have a responsibility to the people of the world. "Do something worthwhile. Do something that helps us all." He was quiet and intense and earnest. This was not long after September 11.

The world is poorer today. I feel like pouting.

He once wrote down some rules for writing a short story. They are sensible. Here they are:

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 how 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.


possum said...

I, too, read and relished Kurt Vonnegut because he was a famous Hoosier and because he was so fucking awesome. I read him in high school, and now, seeing my students read him and mourn his death in that way only teenagers can, I am saddened by what we are left without. Goddamn, he was cool.

kclou said...

When Vonnegut gave that talk at Iowa, the ex-boyfriend of a friend of mine from college drove down from Wisconsin, unannounced, to go to the reading, which he couldn't get into, so many people were already there. So ex-boyfriend of a friend and I drank beers at George's and talked about how great Vonnegut is instead. Somehow I got a bookshelf out of it, which I still have. One of the rare writers who inspired awe among people who didn't consider themselves readers. What a great thing to be.

Pete said...

“Cat’s Cradle” was the first novel for grown-ups that I read by choice and did not have a sword and/or chain mail somewhere on the cover. I was amazed that a writer generally taken so seriously could also be so silly. It was that whimsy, I think, particularly as it paired with a searing moral clarity, that made Vonnegut’s best work so great. You can’t even call it satire, exactly, either. It’s too humane for that.

El Gordo de Amore said...

Probably once a month I repeat to myself Vonnegut's suggestion during his talk at Iowa that we all go into advertising. I'm not sure he meant it as a comforting thought (although I like to think he did), but it helps me keep perspective on the relative unimportance of rejections, awards, advances, publishing deals, hype, and what not, which in turn keeps me from hurling my unpublished books and stories into the harbor in a fit of "I'll never make it -- why the fuck am I bothering?"

I mean, shit, advertising is a much better gig than writing stories -- at least it's fairly clear what you're supposed to be doing -- getting people to buy stuff -- and, if you get people to buy stuff, you are good at it. Art, not so clear cut.

Writing stories is like choosing to be haunted.

I like the idea that he may have been giving us a hint as to what a whacked-out endeavor we had chosen for ourselves. And was preparing us for its bumpy road.