Brain Pickings

Kurt Vonnegut’s Life-Advice to His Children

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Educate yourself, welcome life’s messiness, read Chekhov, avoid becoming an architect at all costs.

Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) endures as one of modern history’s most beloved authors, a wiseman of storytelling and a shaman of style. He was also, however, one great dad: In Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (public library) — which also gave us the author’s priceless daily routine, his endearing apartment woes, and this lovely short poem he penned for his friend — Vonnegut adds to history’s finest letters of fatherly advice in a series of letters to his children. Besides his own three kids — Nanette, Mark, and Edith — Vonnegut and his first wife, Jane, ended up raising three of his sister Alice’s four children after Alice and her husband died of unrelated causes within 24 hours of each other; he later adopted another daughter with his second wife, Jill.

In a 1969 letter to his 22-year-old son Mark, Vonnegut offers a daisy chain of practical and irreverent fatherly advice:

Advice my father gave me: never take liquor into the bedroom. Don’t stick anything in your ears. Be anything but an architect.

The following year, Kurt and Jane separated, and he began living with the woman who would become his second wife nine years later. Worried about how the divorce might affect his youngest biological daughter, Nanette — whom he affectionately addressed as “Nanny,” “Nanno” or “Dear old Nan” — he wrote in a 1971 letter to the 17-year-old girl:

Well — it could go two ways with us: you could figure you had been ditched by your father, and you could mourn about that. Or we could keep in touch and come to love each other more than ever before.

The second possibility is the attractive one for me. It’s the absolutely necessary one for me. And the trouble with it is that you will have to write me a lot, or some, anyway, and call up sometimes, and so on. We’ve got to wish each other happy birthdays, and ask how work is going, and tell each other jokes, and all that. And you’ve got to visit me often, and I’ve got to pay more attention to what sorts of things are really good times instead of chores for you.

Nanette — who recently wrote about her conflicted relationship with her dad and his fame in the introduction to this fantastic posthumous collection of Vonnegut’s first and last works — took the second possibility and the two remained in close touch over the years. This heartening excerpt from a 1972 letter to Nanette reveals the warmth of their relationship:

You should know that I as a college student didn’t write my parents much. You said all that really matters in your first letter from out there … that you love me a lot. Mark wrote me the same thing recently. That helps, and it lasts for years. I think I withheld that message from my parents. Either that, or I said it so often that it became meaningless. Same thing, either way.

In another letter, 50-year-old Vonnegut writes to his “Dear Nanno”:

Most letters from a parent contain a parent’s own lost dreams disguised as good advice. My good advice to you is to pay somebody to teach you to speak some foreign language, to meet with you two or three times a week and talk. Also: get somebody to teach you to play a musical instrument. What makes this advice especially hollow and pious is that I am not dead yet. If it were any good, I could easily take it myself.

(More than three decades later, he would echo this in his wonderful letter of life-advice to the children in a high school class, urging them to “practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience BECOMING, to find out what’s inside you, to MAKE YOUR SOUL GROW.”)

Vonnegut on a trip to Niagara Falls with his children, 1963.

His most timeless advice, however, comes in a late-1971 letter to Nanette and speaks to today’s recurring theme of welcoming the unplanned:

Dear Old Nanno –

You’re learning now that you do not inhabit a solid, reliable, social structure — that the older you get people around you are worried, moody, goofy human beings who themselves were little kids only a few days ago. So home can fall apart and schools can fall apart, usually for childish reasons, and what have you got? A space wandered named Nan.

And that’s O.K. I’m a space wandered named Kurt, and Jane’s a space wanderer named Jane, and so on. When things go well for days on end, it is an hilarious accident.

You’re dismayed at having lost a year, maybe, because the school fell apart. Well — I feel as though I’ve lost the years since Slaughterhouse-Five was published, but that’s malarky. Those years weren’t lost. They simply weren’t the way I’d planned them. Neither was the year in which Jim had to stay motionless in bed while he got over TB. Neither was the hear in which Mark went crazy, then put himself together again. Those years were adventures. Planned years are not.

I look back on my own life and I wouldn’t change anything. . . .

Later in the same letter, he adds another piece of advice:

I think it’s important to live in a nice country rather than a powerful one. Power makes everybody crazy.

He concludes the letter with some vital advice on educating oneself beyond the classroom, offering Nanette a mock-strict directive on soul-expansion:

Learn German during your last semester at Sea Pines, and you’ll learn more than I ever learned in high school. I doubt that they can get you in shape to cool the college boards, so the hell with the college boards. Educate yourself instead. In the final analysis, that’s what I had to do, what Uncle Beaver had to do, and what we all have to do.

I am going to order you to do something new, if you haven’t done it already. Get a collection of the short stories of Chekhov and read every one. Then read “Youth” by Joseph Conrad. I’m not suggesting that you do these things. I am ordering you to do them.

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters remains a delight. Pair it with Vonnegut on how to write with style, his fictional interviews with luminaries, and this NPR interview with him in Second Life shortly before his death, then pair his advice with more fatherly wisdom from Einstein on the secret to learning anything, John Steinbeck on falling in love, Ted Hughes on nourishing the inner child, and Sherwood Anderson on the creative life.

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