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Monday, May 23, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut on “the only thing you can teach” writers

In his Library of America interview about Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973 volume editor and best friend Sidney Offit shared some of the tips he and Vonnegut swapped as fellow creative writing teachers:
Kurt understood the short story and the structure. He once did a chart for me. He said the only thing you can teach is development. A story has to have a development and change. And that is right on the mark. I’ve taught much more than he had in terms of years and schools—at NYU, Hunter, the New School. And I have to tell you: the gift for narrative, for storytelling, is rarer than the gift for poetic prose or elegant language—it isn’t even close. The students I have had over the years who could write stories were eventually published. . .
In his many popular talks on storytelling, Vonnegut frequently used a chalkboard to draw the chart Offit refers to. There’s a YouTube clip of the beginning of one of these talks (see below). An essay in A Man Without a Country called “Here is a lesson in creative writing” offers a longer version that moves from the Cinderella story to explore the contrasting structures of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Hamlet. Vonnegut ends by pondering the strange similarities of fairy tales and tragedies:
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?”
Lapham’s Quarterly has posted most of this essay—with Vonnegut's drawings—but leaves out an opening paragraph that seems particularly appropriate for graduation season:
If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
Watch Kurt Vonnegut discuss “the shapes of stories”:

Also of interest:
Related LOA work: Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973

1 comment:

  1. "Writing Kurt Vonnegut"— a blog about the art and craft of writing the first biography of Vonnegut.



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