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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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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