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

“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 eight rules for writing stories.


Imagination Illustrated: Muppets Creator Jim Henson’s Never-Before-Seen Journals and Sketches

Rare sketches, photographs, doodles, and other glimpses of the beloved Muppeteer’s mind and creative process.

It’s always an irresistible treat to peek inside the private notebooks and sketchbooks of some of the world’s greatest artists, typographers, naturalists, architects, and designers. But it’s especially delightful to peek inside the private world of one of modern history’s most celebrated creative minds. That’s precisely what archivist Karen Falk offers in Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal (public library) — a revealing glimpse into the life and artistic process of the beloved Muppets creator through a selection of rare sketches, storyboards, photographs, personal notes, doodles, production drawings, and other never-before-published ephemera.

Kermit and Miss Piggy on bicycles at Battersea Park, 1980
Jim, Rowlf, and 19-year-old Frank Oz, who performed Rowlf’s right paw and eventually became Jim’s closest performing partner and best friend, 1963

Lisa Henson, Jim’s daughter, writes in the foreword:

Everyone knows that Jim Henson created the Muppets, and that he performed the most famous Muppet of all, Kermit the Frog. … What no one really understands is how much other creative stuff was going on in my father’s mind. Jim spent almost all of his waking hours in some form of creative activity, which was as natural for him as smiling and walking are for other people. What he produced was only a fraction of all the ideas that he had, and what we generally see today is only a fraction of what he produced.


Because creativity is a process, it is also rewarding to focus on it more than the finished projects. In this book, you are able to see snapshots of my father’s creative process, flashes of his inspirations, and his memories of the milestones that were the highlights of his personal and professional life.

Jim’s sketches behind the scenes at WRC, 1955

Though Henson was no match for history’s famous diarists, he used his sketchbook as a kind of “memory warehouse” where he noted both the events of his life and the riotous activity of his imagination. Falk writes in the introduction:

Jim often used blank books to sketch out ideas for specific projects or designs for characters, and once or twice, tried to start a diary containing longer accounts of events and his related feelings, but always set them aside after a short period. This journal is the only continuous effort of this sort, covering almost his entire adult life.

Bonnie Erickson’s design sketches for two new Muppets characters, Statler and Waldorf, after ABC finally greenlit Jim’s 15-year pitch to expand the show’s cast of characters in 1975

Falk writes of Henson’s experimental films in the mid-1960s:

Along with the Muppets, Jim had a parallel outlet for his creative energies. Having acquired a Bolex 16mm camera and animation equipment, Jim eagerly pursued other methods of expressing himself. He painted under the camera, filmed cut paper as it danced to jazz riffs and syncopated rhythms, and shot abstract footage of lights, trees and city streets. This led to the existential live-action shorts, including Time Piece in 1964, which was nominated for an Oscar, and hour-long documentary or dramatic pieces that aired on Experiments in Television. Tempted to focus on his live-action filmmaking career and pursue grown-up projects like a psychedelic nightclub, the decade ended with a tug back to puppets. Jim was invited t participate in the development of a revolutionary children’s show, Sesame Street, which premiered in November 1969.

Jim’s sketches of Rowlf, 1962
Season one performers Dave Goelz, John Lovelady, Eren Ozker, Jim Henson, Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, and Richard Hunt, 1976

Meticulously annotated and lovingly compiled, Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal is at once an invaluable record of modern creative history and an affectionate celebration of Henson’s legacy and magic.


Susan Sontag’s List of Beliefs at Age 14 vs. Age 24

“The only difference between human beings is intelligence.”

The first installment of Susan Sontag’s published diaries, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), has already given us her views on life, death, art and freedom and her list of “rules + duties for being 24” and her 10 rules for raising a child.

In an entry dated November 23, 1947, 14-year-old Susan lists her core beliefs, many of which — including her cult of the intellect, her pursuit of freedom, and her views on government — remained strikingly consistent, if not exponentially engrained, over the course of her life.

I believe:

(a) That there is no personal god or life after death

(b) That the most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself, i.e., Honesty

(c) That the only difference between human beings is intelligence

(d) That the only criterion of an action is its ultimate effect on making the individual happy or unhappy

(e) That it is wrong to deprive any man of life [Entries ‘f’ and ‘g’ are missing.]

(h) I believe, furthermore, that an ideal state (besides ‘g’) should be a strong centralized one with government control of public utilities, banks, mines, + transportation and subsidy of the arts, a comfortable minimum wage, support of disabled and age[d]. State care of pregnant women with no distinction such as legitimate + illegitimate children.

Then, a decade later, in 1957, she revisits the subject, shifting away from a certain absolutism and towards a more balanced, even romantic ethos:

What do I believe?

In the private life
In holding up culture
In music, Shakespeare, old buildings

What do I enjoy?

Being in love

My faults

Never on time
Lying, talking too much
No volition for refusal

Reborn was followed by the excellent As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, which gave us Sontag’s views on love, writing, censorship, boredom, and aphorisms


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