Writing from the Edge
July 23, 2016
NOT LONG AGO, I had a conversation with Kurt Vonnegut. He was on the edge, much father than I dared to go. But he was comfortable writing from the edge. I often had trouble reading from the edge.
He never went over.
I feared I might.
It’s a long way to the bottom.
It really wasn’t much of a conversation.
I was here.
But his words were.
Words are all that count.
And I lean heavily on his words.
I would try to write like Kurt Vonnegut, but nobody can write like Kurt Vonnegut. There were times when even Kurt Vonnegut had trouble trying to write like himself.
No one ever figured out his genre.
He certainly had no idea what it was.
Sometimes, he gave us black comedy.
Other titles read like science fiction.
Always he added a heavy dose of satire.
Kurt Vonnegut could make you laugh on the outside even when you were crying on the inside.
He had a rare gift.
He made the complicated simple, the simple bizarre. He turned phrases inside out and twisted them into verbal pretzels.
He was a writer.
He was a genius.
What should I write about?
That was the first question I asked him.
“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about,” he said. “It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”
What other advice could he give me?
Vonnegut was ready.
He had eight tips, and they came right out of his book, “Bagombo Snuff Box,” which was a random assortment of short stories he had compiled over the years.
Here is what he had to say.
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- 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.
- 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.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell 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.
Those were his words, and the words were pure gold and pure Vonnegut, straight from his heart, straight from his mind, straight from the gut.
After all, he was the man who wrote: “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”
He writing always came from the edge.
And he always stayed too close to it.
He firmly believed: “If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you’re a one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind.”
What else is there to say?