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

“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

BP

Kurt Vonnegut’s Life-Advice to His Children

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 wanderer named Nan.

And that’s O.K. I’m a space wanderer 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.

BP

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

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

Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922–April 11, 2007) 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 (public library) — a superb addition to history’s finest advice on writing.

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.

Complement with Vonnegut on the shapes of stories, the secret of happiness, his daily routine, and his life-advice to his children.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, dive into this evolving library of great writers’ collected wisdom on the craft, including Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

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

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.

BP

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