Kurt Vonnegut and the writing life

2873008032_2055098686_mWhen 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.”

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Be audacious

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Years ago I interviewed a hockey coach on the cusp of a playoff run.Most of his players were in their first or second year with the team and didn’t have any playoff experience. I asked the coach if this concerned him.

It didn’t.

He said something to the effect of: “Sometimes it’s better if you don’t know what you don’t know. And when you’re as young as they are, you don’t.”

The same principle applies to writing.

If you’re just starting out, with no clear idea of what you’re doing, it’s not a bad thing.

You’ll foul things up in a million different ways, but as you go, you’ll find yourself.

You’ll find your voice.

You’ll find out if writing is something you really want to do.

And if you keep going you’ll get better, because that’s how it works.

Being a writer takes both hubris and humility. It means being bold enough to put your words into the world, and willing to take criticism from editors and readers.

It’s still the best job/hobby/calling you can possibly have, as far as I’m concerned.

So if you’re reading this and you’re young, unsure if you should be doing this thing you long to do, let me assure you:

Yes. You should be doing it. If this is what you want to do, give it a try.

Writing empowers us in ways we can’t fathom until we start experimenting with it.

It gives us control over our own narratives. It helps us work through ideas in ways we can’t in conversation, or in a university seminar.

Writing is the thing we must do, if we’re compelled to do it at all.

And sometimes it’s best not to know any better.

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Where do you even start?

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You can start at the beginning, or you can start at the end.

You can start in the middle.

You can throw stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

You can blab to your computer screen like you would to a friend.

Or a confidante, or perhaps your younger self. Or perhaps your children.

Or perhaps your future children. Or perhaps the president of the United States of America.

It doesn’t matter.

All that matters is that you get started.

Because if you don’t get started, you can’t finish.

And if you don’t finish, you’ll never end up where you want to be.

You want to be a writer, right?

So write, alright?

Your stuff doesn’t have to be perfect.

In fact, it never will be.

Perfect is impossible, and trying to be perfect makes you boring.

So just get started, and see how it goes.

You don’t have to match Shakespeare … but why not give it a try?

Can you compose a sonnet?

Yes, you can.

You have my permission.

Shakespeare died 402 years ago, and he does not have a monopoly on sonnets.

Write what is in your heart, what’s on your mind.

Write out of love, and to quash hate.

Just do your best, and don’t hurt anyone (including yourself) in the process.

Be smart. Be wise. Be cautious.

But do this thing, because it’s the thing that gives you life.

It’s the thing that feeds your soul.

As the rapper, filmmaker and all-around genius Shad says:

“Honestly, the haters can hate. Just let the creators create.”

You’re a creator.

We all are.

So get started.

Write.

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Essay: Tall-man syndrome

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In journalism school I went on a T.V. shoot with a classmate who was short, maybe five-foot-three, a Canadian whose family emigrated from Britain when she was a kid.

It was her shoot, and she was fully in charge. But as we met with our interview subject to plan what shots we would take, where we would interview him, and so on, he seemed to ignore her about half the time.

Instead of looking to her for direction, he kept looking to me, a tall, husky white man who stands about six-foot-four and could probably have been a linebacker if he were not so soft, timid and shy.

I assumed the man we interviewed was being sexist, but when I told another friend about it she shot my theory down with a sentence or two.

“People naturally gravitate to the tallest person in the room,” she said.

I thought there was more to it than that, but I didn’t have anything to back it up, so I dropped it.

“Oh,” I said, chuckling softly, like a lummox.

“Yeah.”

I didn’t think about my size again until we graduated and I interviewed for my first job.

It was at the only daily newspaper in the city where we attended school, with a summer internship program that paid well and added heft to a resume.

As he led me to the interview room, the paper’s local news editor asked if we’d ever met, and I said we hadn’t.

“I didn’t think so,” he said. “I would have remembered meeting someone as big as you.”

At the time I was around 260 pounds, with a short beard and a buzz cut, pear-shaped and soft as a pillow.

“Yeah,” I said, chuckling again.

The job interview was not a disaster, but it did not go well. They rarely do.

I am usually nervous in these situations, and I lean toward self-deprecation rather than self-promotion.

Despite my qualifications—I’d been a reporter for about eight years, and I was one of the top students in my master’s program—I was not good at selling myself.

Also, I spoke with a small, hushed voice that contrasted against my size. This was a key criticism the local news editor provided later, when he told me I didn’t get the job.

“You’re a huge guy,” he said, in effect. “And you need to acquire a personality that matches it.”

I have the opposite of small-man syndrome, where diminutive adults push around larger subordinates in order to make up for the times they were bullied as kids.

Except when I am playing basketball or some other sport where my height is an advantage, I am a large man who wishes he were small.

In high school, when I was trying various identities to see what fit, I sometimes wished I were more like Will Smith’s character on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Will was tall, confident and cool. He cracked jokes and used Ebonics and was the big man on campus. He could make any ridiculous outfit look (to borrow a word he used) “fly.”

Apart from his short, nerdy cousin Carleton, everyone wanted to be Will’s friend. He gave people weird nicknames, like Cornflake, that seemed perfect and off-the-cuff.

“So look,” I wanted to be able to say to a girl out of my league. “Why don’t we just kick it over to Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles?”

Or, even better: “Yo wassup, baby? Hurry up, write your number down ‘fore I don’t want it no more.”

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I was not one of the cool kids in school, but I was not frequently ridiculed, and I did relatively well academically and in sports.

Along with five schoolmates, I played tenor saxophone in the jazz band, and they all deferred to me when it came time to stand up and play solos.

I hated this, because I got nervous and could barely hide it. Any mental effort I might have directed toward hitting the right notes, I used to trample the butterflies in my stomach.

It was sometimes the same in class presentations, where I felt obliged to take a leadership role and speak more than some of my peers.

In class, as well as in church, adults seemed to expect more from me than they did from others. This verse from the Gospel of Luke was a major theme of my upbringing:

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (12:48)

But I identified much more with Moses, who shied away from the spotlight when called upon, citing the fact he was, “slow of speech and tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)

I have benefitted greatly from being the tallest guy in almost every room I’ve entered since I was sixteen. But much of the time I’ve wanted to shrink down to the size of an ant and go unnoticed.

If you search Google for insightful quotes about being tall, you won’t find many.

Most of them are memes about annoying questions, like: “How’s the weather up there?” (Answer, according to the meme: Exactly the same, bitch.)

A majority of them hint at how being a tall woman is, like most other things we have in common, more complicated than being a tall man.

“I’m too tall to be a girl,” Julia Roberts apparently said. “I’m between a chick and a broad.”

Others note how being tall is a blessing, rather than a burden.

“When people are absurdly tall, they command everyone’s attention when they walk into a room,” said the musician Steve Albini, who is apparently six feet.

“Nobody’s ever dismissive of somebody for being too tall.”

My favourite is from the actress Sigourney Weaver, who also stands six feet: “It takes courage to be as big as you are, and not be intimidated by tiny people.”

In my journalism school there were only a handful of other tall white men, one of whom was our unquestioned leader and graduated at the top of the class.

That T.V. shoot with my diminutive friend (who is ridiculously smart, talented and funny in her own right) began to open my eyes about how circumstances and genetics have determined my lot in life.

Yes, I’ve worked extremely hard to get where I am today. And most of my success is the product of merit and ability.

But some of it is also due to the fact people naturally equate male tallness with authority, leadership ability, and potential.

We really do gravitate toward the tallest people in the room, especially if they are men. I’m not complaining, but for what it’s worth: Some of us would rather you didn’t.

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Here’s the question every writer must ask

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In university I had a professor who was terse and gruff, but soft as a pillow inside.

She was about 50, tall and thin, with wire-framed glasses and a perpetual scowl. Every time I thought she was going to blast us for being idiots, she’d make a joke.

If she railed on about how it was crucial to meet deadlines and use scholarly sources and cite them correctly and always run a spell check before handing in an assignment, she’d realize what she was doing and say:

“Nag, nag, nag.”

She seemed to genuinely want to hand out good grades, but she wasn’t the Good Grade Fairy.

If you didn’t put in the work, she wasn’t going to wave her magic wand and pretend you had.

You’d get the mark she thought you deserved, and if you disagreed with it she was more than willing to listen to your case for bumping it up.

A word of advice, though: Wait at least 48 hours, and make sure you’re sober when you fire off that email.

“Don’t drink and write,” she said.

We laughed, because to most of us this was common sense, and to the rest it was a good, practical tip that would come in handy the next time.

The most helpful thing our professor taught us about writing was the difference between a thesis and a self-evident statement.

If you wanted to write an essay about how indigenous people in Canada are still grappling with the legacy of residential schools, which is only one recent example of ongoing cultural genocide that stretches back to the time of first contact with Europeans, she would say:

“Yeah. I know that. We all know that. That’s what we’ve been talking about all semester. That’s the whole point of this course.”

Except she wouldn’t say it like that. All she’d say was:

“So what?”

It was her way of demanding we do better than state the obvious.

If we wanted good grades, we’d have to provide something that moved the conversation forward.

And so every thesis statement had to answer that question:

“So what?”

If we could answer it, maybe it was an idea worth pursuing. If not, we had to dig deeper.

There is a school of thought in professional writing that says it’s fine to steal ideas, as long as you put your own slant on them.

“Good artists copy,” Steve Jobs said, citing Picasso. “Great artists steal.”

It sounds wise, but it isn’t.

The truth is, bad artists copy.

Good artists do everything they can to avoid it.

Great artists bring something new to the table. They don’t stop pursuing originality simply because it’s hard.

Our ideas are shaped by the ideas of other people, of course. We encounter them in books, in music, through life experience and so on.

But there are still new ideas to be had. The Idea Fairy will bring them to us. All we need to do is think about stuff, and she’ll do the rest.

Really, that’s all there is to it.

As writers, we don’t need to be dumb, and we don’t have to be lazy.

If you want to know if an idea is worth pursing, ask the question our professor etched into our brains that semester.

“So what?”

If you have an answer, keep going. If not, try another tack.

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Why you must persevere

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In the foreword to the 25th anniversary of The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho writes about how the book was a miserable failure when it first came out.

It barely sold.

His original publisher cancelled his contract, but let him keep the rights to the book. So there he was, 41 years old, a failed writer.

But he never lost faith in The Alchemist, or wavered in his vision.

This, at least is what he would have us believe.

“Why?” he asks. “Because it was me in there, all of me, heart and soul … I was following my Personal Legend, and my treasure was my capacity to write.”

A second publisher took a chance on him, and The Alchemist eventually found its audience. Thousands of copies sold in the year after its release, largely–according to the author–by word of mouth.

In what may have seemed like his big break, HarperCollins agreed to publish the book in the United States, taking out advertisements in the New York Times and in newsmagazines.

Coelho was interviewed on television and on the radio, which at the time was a big deal. Sales were initially modest, but then The Alchemist became a sensation.

A photographer captured Bill Clinton with a copy outside the White House. Madonna spoke about the novel in an interview with *Vanity Fair.*

Suddenly, everyone was talking about it.

As Coelho set out to promote the 25th anniversary edition, The Alchemist had sold more than 65 million copies and been translated into more than 80 languages.

“When I sat down to write The Alchemist, all I knew is that I wanted to write about my soul,” he writes.

“I wanted to write about my quest to find my treasure. I wanted to follow the omens, because I knew even then that the omens are the language of God.”

The lesson here is not that every writer who perseveres will have success.

It’s that success only comes with perseverence.

A body of work is built one word at a time, sentence by sentence, book by book.

You don’t get credit just for showing up, and neither do I. But if we don’t show up, we can’t do our work.

And this is the work we must do.

Coelho hints that The Alchemist resonates because it is a universal story, one that speaks to our souls.

“[I]t continues to live every day, because my heart and soul are in it,” he writes.

“And my heart and soul is your heart and soul …. The story of one person is the story of everyone, and one man’s quest is the quest of all humanity.”

It’s not always wise to bear your soul, because most people will not be gentle with it.

But if you’re inclined to write, it’s important to write.

If you have a voice, it’s important to use it. Failure may come, and it may crush you.

It may also help you find your true self. Then you will find the stories you should be telling, the truths you can’t keep bottled up.

And like Coelho, your soul may brush against a few million others just when they need it to.

It may help them keep going, too.

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Why you should write every day

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Henri Nouwen, the priest and academic, wrote candidly about one of the most emotionally painful periods in his life.

It began in the winter of 1987, shortly after he joined L’Arche Daybreak, a community of men and women with mental disabilities.

Nouwen had taught at some of the most prestigious universities in the world, and became one of the most respected spiritual writers of his day.

But as an academic he never felt as if he were “fully at home,” according to the foreword of his book The Inner Voice of Love.

Nouwen came to think of L’Arche as his “true home,” a place where he was accepted and given all the attention and affection he could hope for.

He let his guard down and opened his heart more fully.

Nouwen became especially close to one friend, and he allowed himself be loved and cared for with a level of trust and confidence he had never experienced before.

“It brought immense joy and peace,” he wrote.

“It seemed as if a door of my interior life had been opened, a door that had remained locked during my youth and most of my adult life.”

Then the friendship was interrupted, and Nouwen fell apart.

He felt abandoned, rejected and betrayed. His anguish matched the level of joy he had previously enjoyed.

“Indeed,” he wrote, “the extremes touched each other.”

It took six months of counselling and spiritual care to arrive at a point where he could return to L’Arche, and eventually the friendship was restored.

During that time of healing, Nouwen was surprised to find that he never lost the ability to write.

“In fact, writing became part of my struggle for survival,” he wrote.

“It gave me the little distance from myself that I needed to keep from drowning in my despair.”

On most days, after meeting with two “guides” who helped him through this difficult time, he wrote a command to himself that had emerged from their session.

“These imperatives were directed to my own heart. They were not meant for anyone but myself.”

A friend and publisher at Doubleday felt these writings could help others, but Nouwen said he was too close to it.

He started working on another book, a remarkable and moving volume called The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Eight years later, Nouwen re-read the journal he kept during that time of anguish and, at the urging of several other friends, decided to publish it.

That book, The Inner Voice of Love, is a key part of Nouwen’s prodigious body of work.

His journey through intense emotional pain has been a consolation to others with broken hearts and broken lives, including me.

In hindsight, Nouwen could see that this period was a time of “intense purification that had led … gradually to a new inner freedom, a new hope, and a new creativity.”

His friends believed his journal revealed that light and darkness, hope and despair, love and fear, are never far from one another.

They also believed, according to Nouwen, “that spiritual freedom often requires a fierce spiritual battle.”

All of this to say, you never know what value others will find in the words you put down, even when you feel like trash and can barely pull yourself out of bed.

You don’t know how your words will help them, or hurt them, or pull them forward.

Keep writing, anyway.

Write out of love, of course. Don’t write to settle scores.

Be careful with your words, and do everything you can to avoid hurting people.

But keep writing.

Do it for yourself, and decide later (even several years later) if you want to share your thoughts with anyone else.

It’s not overly dramatic to say that writing may save your life.

It’s not arrogant or smug to think it may save someone else’s.

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