The Kurt Vonnegut Primer for Writers

Caleb Pirtle III presents advice for writers from the curious and madcap mind of Kurt Vonnegut, whose writings defined the restless, angry generation of the ’70s.

Kurt Vonnegut, in his own words, admitted that he became a writer because he couldn’t do anything else. He was young, restless, a rebel who didn’t need a cause, and cursed by a wild, madcap sense of irreverent humor that bit hard and cut deep. Vonnegut was, as always, broke, which forced him to take a job at Sports Illustrated even though he did not like sports and knew even less about the games men played for money.

Kurt Vonnegut

He said: “When the magazine was only a glint in the eyes of Luce Publications, they hired a bunch of sports writers from yokel venues who, it turned out, couldn’t write. So they hired a bunch of writers who didn’t care or know squat about sports. I was part of that second batch, having gone broke as only the daddy of six kids on Cape Cod can hit the big casino.”

Vonnegut was shown his office on Monday morning. He walked in and discovered that he had a desk but no chair. “I need a chair,” he said.

One didn’t come.  A week passed. Every day he asked for a chair. He spent the next eight hours sitting on the edge of his desk. No chair. He was on his own.

He made one last demand to his editor on Friday. The editor assigned him to cover a steeplechase horse race over the weekend. “We’ll have the chair when you get back on Monday,” he said.

“What’s a steeplechase horse race?” Vonnegut asked.

“You’ll figure it out when you get there,” the editor said.

Vonnegut returned early Monday morning. He walked into his office. There was no chair at the desk. Vonnegut, without a word, fed a sheet of paper into the typewriter, and wrote his sports story: “The f…..g horse jumped over the f…..g fence.”

He turned around and walked out. Sports Illustrated never saw him again.

Vonnegut's best selling novel of a boy in war-torn Europe who becomes unstuck in time.

The literary world is indeed fortunate. If Kurt Vonnegut had been given a chair, we might have never had such classic novels as Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.  It was said that Vonnegut, like none other, caught the temper of his times and the imagination of a generation, especially during the 1970s when a restless nation twisted in the winds over Vietnam. His novels became  classics of the American counterculture. The New York Times wrote that his books “were a mixture of fiction and autobiography in a vernacular voice, prone to one-sentence paragraphs and italics. Some critics said he had invented a new literary type, infusing the science-fiction form with humor and moral relevance and elevating it to serious literature.”

His appearance was unmistakable. His curly hair was always askew. He had deep pouches under his eyes, and he wore rumpled clothes. Vonnegut believed: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Although the literary world took him seriously, Vonnegut simply said: “I tell you, we are here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

He had this advice for writers:

“Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in the world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations style.

“These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful?

“Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead – or, worse, they will stop reading you.

“One.  Find a subject you care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

“Two: Do not ramble though. I won’t ramble about that.

“Three: Keep it simple. Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences, which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story, Eveline, is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

“Four: Have guts to cut. Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: if a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

The movie based on Vonnegut's classic novel.

“Five: Sound like yourself. The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as un-ornamental as a money wrench.

“Six: Say what you mean. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to another rigidly, like parts of a machine. They hoped I would become understandable and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and want to be understood.”

Vonnegut’s other thoughts on writing include:

  • I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge, you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.
  • Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
  • I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.
  • Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.
  • If you can do a half-assed job of anything (including writing) you’re a one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind.

And so it goes.

If you understand that line, you have read and understand Vonnegut.


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