Pity the Reader
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Pity the Reader

On Writing with Style

Kurt Vonnegut, Suzanne McConnell

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eBook - ePub

Pity the Reader

On Writing with Style

Kurt Vonnegut, Suzanne McConnell

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About This Book

"A rich, generous book about writing and reading and Kurt Vonnegut as writer, teacher, and friend...Every page brings pleasure and insight."— Gail Godwin, New York Times bestselling author Here is an entirely new side of Kurt Vonnegut, Vonnegut as a teacher of writing. Of course he's given us glimpses before, with aphorisms and short essays and articles and in his speeches. But never before has an entire book been devoted to Kurt Vonnegut the teacher. Here is pretty much everything Vonnegut ever said or wrote having to do with the writing art and craft, altogether a healing, a nourishing expedition. His former student, Suzanne McConnell, has outfitted us for the journey, and in these 37 chapters covers the waterfront of how one American writer brought himself to the pinnacle of the writing art, and we can all benefit as a result. Kurt Vonnegut was one of the few grandmasters of American literature, whose novels continue to influence new generations about the ways in which our imaginations can help us to live. Few aspects of his contribution have not been plumbed—fourteen novels, collections of his speeches, his essays, his letters, his plays—so this fresh view of him is a bonanza for writers and readers and Vonnegut fans everywhere. "Part homage, part memoir, and a 100% guide to making art with words, Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style is a simply mesmerizing book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough!"—Andre Dubus III, #1 New York Times bestselling author "The blend of memory, fact, keen observation, spellbinding descriptiveness and zany characters that populated Vonnegut's work is on full display here."—JamesMcBride, National Book Award-winning author

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Information

Publisher
RosettaBooks
Year
2019
ISBN
9780795352836
Chapter 1
Advice for Everyone on Writing Anything
When I teach—and I’ve taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for a couple of years, at City College, Harvard—I’m not looking for people who want to be writers. I’m looking for people who are passionate, who care terribly about something.
—kurt vonnegut, Like Shaking Hands with God
In 1980, the International Paper Company sponsored an advice series in the New York Times. Each two-page piece was composed by a well-known expert. Each featured the principal points in headline bold, with illustrations and further explanation beneath. They included “How to Make a Speech” by George Plimpton, “…Write a Resume” by Jerrold Simon of Harvard Business School, “…Enjoy Poetry” by James Dickey, and so on.
“In view of the fact that I had nearly flunked chemistry, mechanical engineering, and anthropology, and had never taken a course in literature or composition, I was elected to write about literary style,” Kurt Vonnegut said of his contribution.4
I spotted Vonnegut’s “How to Write with Style” in the Times when it was first published, and handed out copies of it every semester after to my writing students at Hunter College. That’s the Vonnegut format I’ll follow to begin with here. It offers general advice directed to everyone, about writing anything, including seven numbered “rules.”
There is a five-paragraph introduction. Then Vonnegut offers this first, most important, suggestion: “Find a subject you care about.”
Notice how he writes that. He assumes that, since you’re a human being, you care about something. All you have to do is search around in the storehouse of yourself and locate it. Beneath the bold headline, though, his complete sentence is more complex:
Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about [italics mine]. 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.5
The following anecdote will illustrate his complete sincerity in what he says about these comparatively humble forms. Discussing his six children in Palm Sunday, he talks about interests and artistic proclivities he feels he bequeathed them, in woodworking, drawing, music, and chess. At that time, his son Mark had published his first book, and his daughter Edie had illustrated a published book. He praises those achievements, along with the artistic and general productivity of his other children, but saves his highest praise for a letter his daughter Nanette wrote to a complete stranger.
What is my favorite among all the works of art my children have so far produced? It is perhaps a letter written by my youngest daughter Nanette. It is so organic! She wrote it to “Mr. X,” an irascible customer at a Cape Cod restaurant where she worked as a waitress in the summer of 1978. The customer was so mad about the service he had received one evening, you see, that he had complained in writing to the management. The management posted the letter on the kitchen bulletin board.
Nanette’s reply went like this:
Dear Mr. X,
As a newly trained waitress I feel that I must respond to the letter of complaint which you recently wrote to the ABC Inn. Your letter has caused more suffering to an innocent young woman this summer than the inconvenience you experienced in not receiving your soup on time and having your bread taken away prematurely and so on.
I believe that you did in fact receive poor service from this new waitress. I recall her as being very flustered and upset that evening, but she hoped that her errors, clumsy as they were, would be understood sympathetically as inexperience. I myself have made mistakes in serving. Fortunately, the customers were humorous and compassionate. I have learned so much from these mistakes, and through the support and understanding of other waitresses and customers in the span of only one week, that I feel confident now about what I am doing, and seldom make mistakes.
There is no doubt in my mind that Katharine is on her way to becoming a competent waitress. You must understand that learning how to waitress is very much the same as learning how to juggle. It is difficult to find the correct balance and timing. Once these are found, though, waitressing becomes a solid and unshakable skill.
There must be room for error even in such a finely tuned establishment as the ABC Inn. There must be allowance for waitresses being human. Maybe you did not realize that in naming this young woman you made it necessary for the management to fire her. Katharine is now without a summer job on Cape Cod, and school is ahead.
Can you imagine how difficult it is to find jobs here now? Do you know how hard it is for many young students to make ends meet these days? I feel it is my duty as a human being to ask you to think twice about what is of importance in life. I hope that in all fairness you will think about what I have said, and that in the future you will be more thoughtful and humane in your actions.
Sincerely,
Nanette Vonnegut.6
I myself have uncommon sympathy for the contents of Nanette’s letter. My first published story was from the point of view of a dishwasher in a restaurant who exacts revenge upon an oppressive boss.7 I waitressed my way through college. Later I discovered it paid as well as adjunct teaching. As the poet Jane Hershfield quips, many writers have been in “the food trades.”8
At any rate, Nanette’s letter fulfills her father’s primary criteria. She cares enough about her subject to write the letter and she thinks others should care: specifically, her boss, the man who complained, the waitress in question, and presumably the other employees at the restaurant.
Nanny’s letter is quite serious. But you can write about a serious subject in a playful way. God knows, Kurt Vonnegut did.
Thirty-one years earlier, at the age of twenty-five, Kurt wrote a contract for himself and his wife Jane to observe. They were newly married and expecting their first child.
CONTRACT between KURT VONNEGUT, JR. and JANE C. VONNEGUT, effective as of Saturday, January 26, 1947
I, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., that is, do hereby swear that I will be faithful to the commitments hereunder listed:
I. With the agreement that my wife will not nag, heckle, and otherwise disturb me on the subject, I promise to scrub the bathroom and kitchen floors once a week, on a day and hour of my own choosing. Not only that, but I will do a good and thorough job, and by that she means that I will get under the bathtub, behind the toilet, under the sink, under the icebox, into the corners; and I will pick up and put in some other location whatever moveable objects happen to be on said floors at the time so as to get under them too, and not just around them. Furthermore, while I am undertaking these tasks I will refrain from indulging in such remarks as “Shit,” “Goddamn sonofabitch,” and similar v...

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