Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Vonnegut’

03 MAY, 2013

Famous Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers

By:

Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Didion, Sontag, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Orwell, and other literary icons.

By popular demand, I’ve put together a periodically updated reading list of all the famous advice on writing presented here over the years, featuring words of wisdom from such masters of the craft as Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, Stephen King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan Orlean, Ernest Hemingway, Zadie Smith, and more.

Please enjoy. (If you’re unable to scroll within the embed below, open the full reading list in a new window.)

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

14 JANUARY, 2013

How to Write with Style: Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word

By:

“The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”

Kurt Vonnegut has given us some of the most timeless advice on the art and craft of writing — from his 8 rules for a great story to his insights on the shapes of stories to his formidable daily routine. But hardly anything examines the subject with a more potent blend of practical advice and heart than Vonnegut’s 1985 essay “How to Write with Style,” published in the wonderful anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word (UK; public library).

Vonnegut begins with an admonition against the impersonal sterility of journalistic reporting — something particularly important amidst contemporary debates about how personal the writerly persona should be — and a meditation on the single most important element of style:

Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful–? And on and on.

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your reader will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an ego maniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.

The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show or make you think about? Did you ever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

Vonnegut goes on to outline eight rules for great writing:

  1. Find a Subject You Care About
  2. Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

    I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

  3. Do Not Ramble, Though
  4. I won’t ramble on about that.

  5. Keep It Simple
  6. As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is just this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

    Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’

  7. Have the Guts to Cut
  8. It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

  9. Sound like Yourself
  10. The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.

    […]

    I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

  11. Say What You Mean to Say
  12. I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledly-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

    Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

  13. Pity the Readers
  14. Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.

    So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.

    That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

  15. For Really Detailed Advice
  16. For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. E. B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

    You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Donating = Loving

In 2012, bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings took more than 5,000 hours. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of coffee and a fancy dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

17 DECEMBER, 2012

Rent Is Too Damn High, Vonnegut Edition: The Beloved Author’s Housing Woes

By:

“You wonder what creates beatniks? Landlords!”

Kurt Vonnegut may have known a thing or two about writing and censorship, but he wasn’t immune to the gritty afflictions of everyday living that befall the rest of us common people. In Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (public library) — which gave us Vonnegut’s priceless daily routine and was among the year’s best history books — he shares a tragicomic series of housing woes during his time teaching at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in the 1960s. Like much of the seemingly mundane topics of his correspondence, these snippets bespeak the depth and richness of his character in subtle, nuanced, yet unequivocal ways.

In a letter to his wife Jane, who had remained in Cape Cod with their kids and whom he addresses lovingly as “Dear Woofy,” Vonnegut writes on September 17, 1965:

But you should see the apartment I have. I don’t recommend that you see it. I opened the door for the first time, and I though, ‘My God, Otis Burger has been here before me!;’ It has a vileness, a George Price uninhabitability that no amateur could achieve. I must sleep in the very first hide-a-bed ever created, which was created from the rusty wreckage of the first Stutz Bearcat. Jesus, it is ever a cruel and ugly old bed! I have a bath with a stall shower, a full kitchen, less ice-cube trays, no curtains or windowshades, and this livingroom-bedroom with the hide-a-bed. You wonder what creates beatniks? Landlords! ‘Live like a pig for $80.00 a month,’ say my surroundings. Very well. Very well.

In another letter four days later, he includes a sketch of his abominable abode:

But, in a testament to our human adaptability and penchant for making a home, Vonnegut seems to warm up to the place, writing Jane:

I like the apartment better each day. It’s friendlier than I thought — a nice, soft old shoe. I work well in it.

Indeed, this workability grows with time, as he writes in yet another letter on September 24:

I am used to my vile pad now. I work pretty well here now, which is the main thing — and any minute now my telephone will be installed.

The following month, Vonnegut finally leaves the crummy pad and moves into a new apartment that occupies “the entire first floor of a Victorian mansion,” “with funny, elaborate furniture.” And still, his housing woes continue. On October 20, he sends Jane another letter, in which his private, gentle, warm inner glow peeks through that faux-curmudgeonly façade:

This place is full of the dumbest, sweetest mice. I haven’t the heart to harm them. … They keep me company and make me laugh.

For a further peek inside Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, see the beloved writer’s daily routine and his heartwarming advice to his children, then revisit Vonnegut on the secret of happiness, the shapes of stories, and how to write with style.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

05 DECEMBER, 2012

An ABZ of Love: Kurt Vonnegut’s Favorite Vintage Danish Illustrated Guide to Sexuality

By:

From common sense to conjugal bliss, by way of corsets and chivalry.

“If you are as interested in sex as you say you are, there is a really lovely book about it in my study — on a top shelf. It’s red, and it’s called The ABZ of Love,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote to is wife Jane in a 1965 letter published in the fantastic new volume Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, and he signed, “Love from A to Z, — K”. Naturally, I went hunting for the obscure vintage tome, which turned out to be as kooky and wonderful as Vonnegut’s recommendation promises. An ABZ of Love (public library), a sort of dictionary of romance and sexual relationships covering everything from radical-for-the-era topics like birth control and homosexuality to mundanities like bidets and picnics to abstractions like disappointment and excess, was originally published in 1963 by Danish husband-and-wife duo Inge and Sten Hegeler, featuring gorgeous black-and-white sketches by artist Eiler Krag reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s Ulysses etchings.

The book is presented with the disclaimer that rather than an ABC textbook for beginners, it is a “personal and subjective supplement to the many other outstanding scientific books on sexual enlightenment already in existence,” setting out to describe “in lexical form a few aspects of sexual relationships seen from a slightly different standpoint.” Indeed, the book was in many ways ahead of its time and of the era’s mainstream, pushing hard against bigotry and advocating for racial, gender, and LGBT equality with equal parts earnestness and wry wit.

The Hegelers, who “have tried to be straightforward and frank,” write poetically in the introduction:

If we look through a piece of glass, irregularities and impurities may distort and discolor the impression of what we see. If we regard something through a convex lens, it appears to be upside down. But if we place a concave lens in front of the convex lens, we correct the distortion in the convex lens and things no longer appear topsy-turvy. Each one of us regards the world through his own lens, his own glasses. The effect of those glasses is that, even though we may be looking at the same thing, not all of us actually see the same thing. The lenses are ground by each individual’s upbringing, disposition and other factors.

[…]

This book is neither art nor science — even though it borrows ingredients from both. It is more by way of being an extra piece of glass through which we can regard a part of life. One can slip it in between one’s own glasses and the window.

It is a piece of glass we have found and polished up a bit. We have looked through it and thought the world looked a bit more human. Perhaps some will think the same as we do.

Many of the entries focus on debunking stereotypes and condemning bigotry, accompanied by apt illustrations.

Some are even outright snarky:

A delightful entry under Sense, common echoes Anaïs Nin’s timeless insight on emotional excess and reads:

Everybody talks about using common sense. Many believe that we are all basically imbued with common sense. It is said that women are creatures of emotion, but that men use their common sense. Nonsense. We are all extremely prone to be guided by our emotions in our choices, actions, judgements, etc.

[…]

We are none of us so full of common sense as we would like to think ourselves.

So there are two paths we can take: one is try to deny and suppress our emotions and force ourselves to think sensibly. In this way we run the risk of fooling ourselves.

The other way is to admit to our emotions, accept our feelings and let them come out into the daylight. By being suspicious of all the judgements we pass on the basis of what we feel (and not until then) we shall taken a step towards becoming practitioners of common sense.

The Hegelers don’t shy away from the philosophical and the prescriptive:

Under Development, there’s a somewhat humorous infographic look at the stages of erotic development. We would like it to be follow a course in which “we very rapidly and regularly become cleverer and cleverer”:

We imagine it goes something like this:

In reality, however, it’s more something like this:

…after swinging around a certain point for a time, very small swings to and from in either direction, a sudden drop with the resultant feeling of hopelessness [and then] once more pendulation around one point for a time, then a drop, then that hopeless feeling, improvement again, etc., etc., without ever reaching the absolute ideal. Disappointments and depressions are necessary features of any process of learning, every development.

Among the more interesting entries is one under Personality, explaining the Freudian model of the self through a visual analogy of a Native American totem pole, with the disclaimer that personality is still an open question:

A person’s personality is the sum of all the things in a person that go to determine the said person’s relationship to other people.

Many theories have been expounded concerning human personality. Many models have been made in an attempt to show what actually happens. Some of these theories are more practical than others, but none of them is correct. We still know too little — perhaps we shall never find the right one. The one which will be described here is of course not the right one either. It is the one used in psychoanalysis.

This model — like so many other theories — is a picture, an attempt to explain something unknown with the help of something known. If we think of personality as the Indian totem pole with three faces corresponding to three persons it will give us an idea of the model.

The three persons have names and are very different in character:

1) The top face is rather strict and censorious. A bit of a light-snuffer. We call this person the super ego, and it represents everything we have learnt concerning what is right and wrong. The super ego reminds us how to drive through traffic, how to hold a knife and fork and generally speaking how ‘one’ behaves. It is also the voice of conscience.

2) The bottom face on the totem pole is a person we call the id. This person takes care of our wishes and urges and needs — the very honest, primitive, but likewise somewhat ruthless powers with in us. The face of the id is therefore a somewhat primitive, uninhibited, wild and brutal mug.

3) The middle face is our own. It is called the ego and is a little squashed between the other two faces. While the upper face possibly resembles our parents, and the bottom face appears a little strange to us, we find it easiest to accept the middle face — a compromise between what we want to do and what we are allowed to.

We are a little perplexed because if we are very good and reserved — then the bottom person thrashes his tail and rebels while the top person nods approvingly. And if we are too abandoned and let the bottom person have his own way –well, we find ourselves landed with a bad conscience, because the upper person grumbles.

So we have to strike a balance. We have to stick to certain moral code — stick to certain rules of the road in order to mingle with the traffic. But we must also pay attention to our ‘nature’ — our id — who likewise demands his rights.

Both beautifully illustrated and boldly defiant of its era’s biases, An ABZ of Love is, just as Vonnegut assured his wife, absolutely wonderful.

Donating = Loving

In 2012, bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings took more than 5,000 hours. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of coffee and a fancy dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

26 NOVEMBER, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories and Good News vs. Bad News

By:

“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.”

This season has been ripe with Kurt Vonnegut releases, from the highly anticipated collection of his letters to his first and last works introduced by his daughter, shedding new light on the beloved author both as a complex character and a masterful storyteller. All the recent excitement reminded me of an old favorite, in which Vonnegut maps out the shapes of stories, with equal parts irreverence and perceptive insight, along the “G-I axis” of Good Fortune and Ill Fortune and the “B-E axis” of Beginning and Entropy. The below footage is an excerpt from a longer talk, the transcript of which was published in its entirety in Vonnegut’s almost-memoir A Man Without a Country (public library) under a section titled “Here is a lesson in creative writing,” featuring Vonnegut’s hand-drawn diagrams.

Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G-I axis]. You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted. The story is ‘Man in Hole,’ but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.

Though the video ends after Cinderella, in A Man Without a Country Vonnegut goes on to sketch out a fourth plot, that of a typical Kafka story:

Now there’s a Franz Kafka story [begins line D toward bottom of G-I axis]. A young man is rather unattractive and not very personable. He has disagreeable relatives and has had a lot of jobs with no chance of promotion. He doesn’t get paid enough to take his girl dancing or to go to the beer hall to have a beer with a friend. One morning he wakes up, it’s time to go to work again, and he has turned into a cockroach [draws line downward and then infinity symbol]. It’s a pessimistic story.

He then moves on to Hamlet, delivering his signature blend of literary brilliance and existential philosophy:

The question is, does this system I’ve devised help us in the evaluation of literature? Perhaps a real masterpiece cannot be crucified on a cross of this design. How about Hamlet? It’s a pretty good piece of work I’d say. Is anybody going to argue that it isn’t? I don’t have to draw a new line, because Hamlet’s situation is the same as Cinderella’s, except that the sexes are reversed.

His father has just died. He’s despondent. And right away his mother went and married his uncle, who’s a bastard. So Hamlet is going along on the same level as Cinderella when his friend Horatio comes up to him and says, ‘Hamlet, listen, there’s this thing up in the parapet, I think maybe you’d better talk to it. It’s your dad.’ So Hamlet goes up and talks to this, you know, fairly substantial apparition there. And this thing says, ‘I’m your father, I was murdered, you gotta avenge me, it was your uncle did it, here’s how.’

Well, was this good news or bad news? To this day we don’t know if that ghost was really Hamlet’s father. If you have messed around with Ouija boards, you know there are malicious spirits floating around, liable to tell you anything, and you shouldn’t believe them. Madame Blavatsky, who knew more about the spirit world than anybody else, said you are a fool to take any apparition seriously, because they are often malicious and they are frequently the souls of people who were murdered, were suicides, or were terribly cheated in life in one way or another, and they are out for revenge.

So we don’t know whether this thing was really Hamlet’s father or if it was good news or bad news. And neither does Hamlet. But he says okay, I got a way to check this out. I’ll hire actors to act out the way the ghost said my father was murdered by my uncle, and I’ll put on this show and see what my uncle makes of it. So he puts on this show. And it’s not like Perry Mason. His uncle doesn’t go crazy and say, ‘I-I-you got me, you got me, I did it, I did it.’ It flops. Neither good news nor bad news. After this flop Hamlet ends up talking with his mother when the drapes move, so he thinks his uncle is back there and he says, ‘All right, I am so sick of being so damn indecisive,’ and he sticks his rapier through the drapery. Well, who falls out? This windbag, Polonius. This Rush Limbaugh. And Shakespeare regards him as a fool and quite disposable.

You know, dumb parents think that the advice that Polonius gave to his kids when they were going away was what parents should always tell their kids, and it’s the dumbest possible advice, and Shakespeare even thought it was hilarious.

‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’ But what else is life but endless lending and borrowing, give and take?

‘This above all, to thine own self be true.’ Be an egomaniac!

Neither good news nor bad news. Hamlet didn’t get arrested. He’s prince. He can kill anybody he wants. So he goes along, and finally he gets in a duel, and he’s killed. Well, did he go to heaven or did he go to hell? Quite a difference. Cinderella or Kafka’s cockroach? I don’t think Shakespeare believed in a heaven or hell any more than I do. And so we don’t know whether it’s good news or bad news.

I have just demonstrated to you that Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho.

But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.

And if I die — God forbid — I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?’

In the same section of A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut offers a delightfully dogmatic rule of writing:

First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Complement with Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing stories.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.