When Kurt Vonnegut was 71 years old he wrote a short piece for the alumni magazine of Cornell University, where he spent three years trying to become a biochemist.
Vonnegut, who never graduated from Cornell and took a meandering path to become one of the most celebrated writers of the late 20th century, was asked for advice to the Class of 1994.
He said someone should have told him not to join a fraternity when he was in college, and that getting drunk is dangerous and stupid. He wished somebody had told him to work for a newspaper instead of aiming for a degree.
But apart from that, his advice was the best he believed he could have received when he arrived at Cornell for the first time.
“Keep your hat on,” he wrote. “We may end up miles from here.”
Vonnegut certainly did.
He left Cornell to join the U.S. Army during the Second World War and made pitstops at Butler University, Carnegie Tech and the University of Tennessee before landing in the infantry.
Vonnegut was captured in the Battle of the Bulge and ended up in a prisoner of war camp in Dresden, where he endured the bombing of that city in an underground meat locker that bore the name of one of his most famous novels: Slaughterhouse-Five.
After the war, Vonnegut completed the coursework for a master’s degree in anthropology and worked for a news bureau in Chicago.
His family was young and growing, so when the university rejected his master’s thesis, he took a job in public relations at General Electric.
“Particularly if you were a child of the Depression, in those days you just got a job,” he said in a separate essay.
“And you didn’t feel destined for this or that job—you just got any goddamned job.”
Vonnegut did not become famous for his writing until Slaughterhouse-Five was published in 1969, when he was 47 years old.
His career had many diversions, false-starts, failures and missteps. He continued to write as he went, publishing 14 novels and several other books, including the classics Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions.
He is remembered as one of the grandmasters of American literature in the late 20th century, the Mark Twain of his era. He also struggled with depression and survived a suicide attempt.
As a writer and as a human being, Vonnegut persevered. That’s half the battle.
The writing life is fraught with failure. It’s the only way you can succeed.
Failure hurts, of course. It’s tempting at times to give up, throw our work in the trash and sulk about it for a few years.
And the truth is, sometimes it’s good to stop and reflect on what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why we bother.
But if we find good answers to those questions — and “because I want to” is a good answer— we ought to keep going.
Life’s twists and turns produce the material we need. The trick is to be attentive, take notes, and keep going.
“I was a victim of a series of accidents,” Vonnegut said, “as are we all.”