Brain Pickings

Kurt Vonnegut on the Writer’s Responsibility, the Limitations of the Brain, and Why the Universe Exists: A Rare 1974 WNYC Interview

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“We have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it, which will be accepted.”

Kurt Vonnegut endures not only as one of the most beloved writers of the past century, but also as a kind of modern sage, with wisdom ranging from his insight on the shapes of stories to his 8 rules for writing with style to his life-advice to his children. In June of 1974, Walter James Miller, host of WNYC’s Reader’s Almanac program, sat down with the celebrated author shortly after the publication of Breakfast of Champions, the tale of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast,” for an interview recently uncovered by William Rodney Allen, editor of the fantastic 1988 anthology Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut (public library).

In this wide-ranging and wonderful conversation from the WNYC archives, Vonnegut talks to Miller about everything from the novel to Hemingway and Twain to the responsibility of writers and the origin of the universe. Transcribed highlights below — enjoy:

On the role of the writer in society, touching on E. B. White’s timeless wisdom, and how myth-making shapes culture — pause-giving food for thought amidst the BuzzFeed age of myth-making-for-profit:

It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that writers are not marginal to our society, that they, in fact, do all our thinking for us, that we are writing myths and our myths are believed, and that old myths are believed until someone writes a new one.

[…]

I think writers should be more responsible than they are, as we’ve imagined for a long time that it really doesn’t matter what we say. I also often have First-Amendment schizophrenia — there’s a lot that I wish wasn’t popular and in circulation, I think there is a lot of damaging material in circulation. . . I think it’s a beginning for authors to acknowledge that they are myth-makers and that if they are widely read, will have an influence that will last for many years — I don’t think that there’s a strong awareness of that now, and we have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it, which will be accepted.

On science, our brush with eternity, the limitations of our cognitive awareness, how the universe came to be, and our fluid experience of time:

I do have a strong idea about the limitations of the computer in our skulls — it’s just large enough to take care of our lives and must ignore an awful lot of what is going on around us. . . . I have a very primitive approach to science — I wonder how the universe originated, how could it have originated … how could you make something out of nothing … and sophomoric ideas like that. And so, after having banged around with that — how do you make a universe out of nothing — I have decided, just logically, that it can’t be done and therefore it must always have existed. And so, from that, I get a sense of permanence and, also, an annoyance with the limitations of my head. And I really do think that what we perceive as time is simply a processing device in our heads to let us consider a little of reality at a time — we couldn’t let it all come in at once.

(On the question of how the universe originated, John Updike would come to echo Vonnegut in asserting that “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain.”)

For more of Vonnegut’s undying wisdom, do track down a copy of the (sadly) out-of-print Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut — it spans the practical and the philosophical, and lives up to Vonnegut’s promise:

I’ve worked with enough students to know what beginning writers are like, and if they will just talk to me for twenty minutes I can help them so much, because there are such simple things to know. Make a character want something — that’s how you begin.

Thanks, super-Alex

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