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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