Letters, Kurt Vonnegut
FOR MAYBE THE LAST YEAR (but really, much longer), I’ve been feeling pretty miserable about my writing prospects. This blog, in part, was an attempt to kick-start my writing. I’ve tried a few things to get back into it, not all of which have been successful. Many of these things have been easy. Things I could do but simply have not done, or have merely half-arsed. But it’s also simply true that for one reason or another I have not finished a single short story in over a year.
I haven’t finished the short story which I was going to write for my girlfriend over a year and a half ago, as a Christmas present. I came up with the concept but didn’t write it for another six months, missing Christmas by a mile. I handed in an excerpt as my final piece at university. I got perfectly good grades — whoopdee-doo — but I never finished it, even though I knew how it was going to end. I still know how it’s going to end.
Speaking to friends, it seems like they’re having the same experience — creatively, that is. And when this happens it’s hard not to compare yourself to other people — or at least, the ways in which you imagine them. The fact is that you will inevitably know people who are around the same age as you, perhaps younger or slightly older, who have very visible signs of success in ways that you do not — perhaps creatively or socially or romantically. Or you may have idols whom achieved far more at your age then you have or maybe ever will. Young writers always imbue me with hatred.
I’m getting back on the train. Last week, I made the promise to write everyday. And it worked, in a way. I’ve started a new short story and I made some progress on an old short story. I haven’t finished anything (of course) but there is some progress — maybe a hundred words a day. That’s not a lot, but it is something. Most importantly, I have made a list on my phone of ideas. The thing that hinders me most is always that when I stop writing, I stop having ideas. The more I write, the more ideas I have. Creativity breeds itself, once you start.
The other thing that has helped is that I’ve been reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Letters.
I’ve read a lot of Vonnegut’s work over the last seven years, including a lot of his non-fiction. If you read lots of introductions and testimonials about Kurt, particularly from his family and friends, you notice that they emphasise over and over again that his success was anything but inevitable: that he complained often of months and months of horrible writer’s block; that he and his family lived in financial difficulties for some time, which was exacerbated further by the tragic death of both his sister and brother-in-law within 24 hours of each other, leaving him and Jane Cox to care for three more children on top of the three they already had. That times were tough and life was hard.
Even as a published writer, at thirty, he was far away from success and respect. In the introduction to Armageddon in Retrospect, Mark Vonnegut writes:
"My mother claimed that she went into bookstores and ordered his books under a false name so the books would at least be in the stores and maybe someone would buy them. Five years later he published Slaughterhouse-five and had a million-dollar multi-book contract. It took some getting used to. Now, for most people looking back, Kurt’s being successful, even famous, writer is an ‘of course’ kind of thing. For me it looks like something that very easily might have not happened."
This had a profound effect on me, and is something I’ve thought about ever since reading it. However, for the last year or so I felt like I’d had a bit of a Vonnegut overdose. I had read five of his novels, two of his short story collections, and three of his essay collections. Once my favourite writer, I stopped reading him for some time. But I picked up his letters at just the right time. In the introduction, Dan Wakefield describes almost exactly how I felt as I read:
“Reading these letters has allowed me to know my friend Kurt Vonnegut better and to appreciate him even more. Nothing came easy for him. Nothing deterred him — not the many editors and publishers who rejected his books and stories; not the anthropology department of the University of Chicago, which rejected not one but two of the theses he wrote for his M.A. degree (awarding it to him only after he was famous); not the Guggenheim Foundation, which rejected his first application for a fellowship; not the doubting relatives and friends from home like his uncle Alex, who said he couldn’t read The Sirens of Titan, after Kurt had dedicated the book to him, or his aunt Ella Stewart, who would not stock his books in the bookstore she owned in Louisville, Kentucky, because she found them degenerate; not his Cape Cod neighbours who didn’t read his books and expressed no interest in what he did for a living; not the school boards that banned his books (and in one case burned them in a furnace) without ever reading them; not the academic critics who spurned and dismissed him; not the backbiting reviewers who tried to drag him down after he became famous [...]
Anyone who imagines a writer’s life has ever been easy — even one who eventually achieves fame and fortune — will be disabused of this fantasy after reading these letters."
Strangely enough, these letters have brought me a lot of joy. Maybe joy isn’t the right word. They’ve made me profoundly sad. But they’ve made me less hard on myself, in the way that introduction by Mark Vonnegut once made me put things in perspective — the way that it made me rethink success, if I try hard to keep it in mind. I remember, often, that Kurt Vonnegut only became respected after Slaughterhouse-five was published, his sixth novel, when he was almost fifty years old. Reading about his profound sadness and loneliness, the constant trials he had to face in writing, in his own words and contemporary to those events rather than after them, makes it a lot more real. It’s not his reminiscing about the hard times. It’s Kurt, reaching out to his friends, telling them that he feels shit about his life and his work.
Things make sense in retrospect. They become a story that you can tell people. All things make sense afterwards, and the details blur a little. When you experience things in the now, it feels very different. Far less grand and profound. This is comforting. For example, in a letter to his daughter he writes:
“You see so little of us, so that we cease to be our actual selves to you and become creatures of your imagination. I admire fiction, am amused and excited by the oversimplification of life it represents. I don’t want to become a character in fiction myself, however, and I want to get along very well with you. So you can do me an enormous favor by thinking of me as a person afloat in time, as you are, rather than as a character locked into the machinery of a fiction plot, with villains and temptresses and so on. The hell of it is that it is so easy to turn anybody’s life into some kind of story we have heard before.”
This is the problem with having heroes, admiring writers, and even comparing ourselves to others. It’s cliche advice to say that we shouldn’t. But the way I try to think about it, when I can, is that we not only create a fiction out of how we see others, but they also present a fiction to us. They probably think about others, and us, in the same way as we think about them. When you talk to someone who you know well about their own achievements, they’ll often object, qualify, and downplay. But perhaps other’s successes feel the same way to them. It’s easy to create a story about others — but problematic. It’s also a way to get stuck in a rut and stuck in our own heads. We’ll make up a story about the kind of person we are. We’ll say “I’m the sort of person that X happens to” and “this is what will happen to me, because it is what has always happened” and eventually it will become true.
This leads to something I’ve been feeling a lot recently, too: a lack of control over my own life. Or, as Vonnegut wrote: “Tell me—when one is being frog-marched by life, does one giggle or does one try to maintain as much dignity as possible under the circumstances?”
Once again, an illusion created by how we think of ourselves. But at least it isn’t unique to us.
Back to writer’s block: these letters have helped me think about my shame to do with productivity. It’s a capitalist world, right, and so our worth is often defined not by who we are but by what we do. Not even just what we do, but how we spend our labour. Often, the first thing we ask of other people is what “they do,” by which we mean their job or career. Some people are very proud of their job, some people are not. Much of the time, this has nothing to do with whether they enjoy their job, but its status: the value that society gives it.
“Americans have yet to catch on the fact that painters actually have to pay for their materials, just as though they were in business or something. Jack Teagarden, the guy everybody agrees was the greatest living trombone player by far, died broke about a week ago. He didn’t take dope. He wasn’t a drunk. He just didn’t get paid much for being the greatest living trombone player.”
I’ve tried to avoid this line of thought as much as I can, by trying to define myself by what I do with my free time. I try and think of myself as someone who pursues creative endeavours — writing and music — and by the ways I think and what I read. But the short stories have dried up, and since writing two new songs for my band’s most recent EP many months ago, I’ve written no new songs. So now what?
“Look, old friend, as a psychological device, let’s pretend there isn’t ever going to be another book written by me. Then, one bright day, into your office will come a manuscript, and we’ll all be proud as punch. Honest to God—I don’t think there’s ever going to be another book, I can’t imagine where the time is going, and I get sick if I think about it too much.”
The above is from a letter penned in 1954 (after Player Piano, before Sirens of Titan).
This was after he’d published one book. He wasn’t commercially or critically successful until his sixth, and even then, critics still loved to tear him down. These are words from the typewriter of one of the most iconic American writers of the 20th century. It’s hard to tell if that’s objectively comforting or not. It feels comforting to me. In A Man Without a Country he wrote:
“Do you realize that all great literature — Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, A Farewell to Arms, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage, The Iliad and the Odyssey, Crime and Punishment, The Bible, and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” — are all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? (Isn’t it such a relief to have somebody say that?)”
It’s comforting because the only other solution is for it to be untrue that life is difficult and painful, or that one day it will no longer be. This is obviously not true, so there’s only one way it can be comforting: that other people experience it in the same way that you do, perhaps profoundly worse than you, and still can and did achieve great things. But not so great that you can’t achieve them, too.
These bits of his life, the years of struggling to write before Slaughterhouse-five and success, as well the ability to finally write a novel about the things that happened to him in the war, I already knew about — but had forgotten about, and they were made more real in Kurt’s own letters. What I didn’t know about was about his life after success. Success stories don’t just end at the point of success. Life carries on.
“As for my happiness: I live from day to day and hour to hour. I know elation. I know despair. A doctor has prescribed pills for depression, which I take from time to time, as instructed. I still have life in me as an artist. I have finished another book. It contains one-hundred and twenty drawings by me as well as prose. My understanding is that I am so odd emotionally and socially that I had better live alone for the rest of my days. During my last years with Jane, there was a formless anger in me which I could deal with only in solitude. Jane did not like it. There is no reason why she should. Nobody likes it.”
This was written in 1972, three years after Slaughterhouse-five was published. I was dimly aware that he divorced Jane Cox at some point, but hadn’t thought about it very much until now. The letters several years up to this point, when he took a writing residency away from home, were profoundly lonely — although still with his constant upbeat tone and wry wit. He struggled immensely to write Breakfast of Champions, and that, along with other books published afterwards, were received badly by the critics. Each letter about his newest book predicts it to be his last, due to how much he struggles with it. Even when he’s writing well, he confesses to being less sure of what he’s trying to do. Looking back, they seem inevitable. But at the time they weren’t.
“I am about a month from finishing another novel—this one about an Abstract Expressionist painter in his seventies, looking back on the founding of that school of radical non-representation. It is called Bluebeard because he has a painting locked away which nobody is supposed to look at until he’s dead. I wish to hell I knew what the book is really about. I should know by this time. My God—I’m on page 305!”
“In my present condition, though, I find important art [...] almost unbearable. Maybe that is because I myself can’t produce important art, and can’t stand proofs that such art is possible. Things could be worse. I could be in what used to be Leningrad, with nothing to eat and without a clue as to what the fuck to write now.”
Even in the way I’m painting this, it feels like there was a point in his life — and there will be such a point in our lives — when he got there. He then stayed there. Where that is, is unimportant. But life is not a race to a finish line, or some place we end up. We find ourselves picturing where we’re going, and assume some place static and unchanging. We get asked what we want to do with our lives, as though there will only be one thing. We imagine having a career, rather than having careers. Even at middle age, married with three children (plus three adopted), there’s still so much living to do. Even after marrying a second time, he once again found himself alone and depressed, asking the fundamental, existential questions that every teenager and twenty-something finds themselves asking.
“As for marrying anyone else I will be 69 in November, and my father, who abused his heart and lungs with tobacco just as I have done, made it to 72, gasping and coughing for the last two years. So I would never ask any woman to commit herself to seeing me through that fast-approaching mode of departure. I feel fine, but it seems highly improbably that I really am fine.”
He has, by this point, by every definition imaginable, “made it”. But what does that really mean.
“I was awarded a lifetime achievement award by an arts support outfit in East Hampton a couple of years ago, and I said in my acceptance speech, ‘Does that mean I can go home now?’ I wish I knew where home was.”
From this point on, the letters get a lot sadder. Not just from their content. The whole way through, although his letters are upbeat and witty, they’re sad to read in the same way that his funniest books are sad because they’re making gallows humour about objectively awful topics. At this point, you realise there’s only one way things are heading.
This part of the letters made me more profoundly sad, because you know there’s no way out of it. A man who’d given so much to the world of writing and who made such a profoundly positive impact on people’s lives felt like he had more that he could’ve achieved, more he could’ve said, but couldn’t find the words any more. He was an old man. People remember Kurt Vonnegut for his infectious and undying kindness, his cautious and un-cliched optimism.
“As for myself, I surely deserve a serious illness, but who says life has to be fair? The past four years have gone down the toilet because I thought up a premise I’m too fogbound to exploit properly. The older my father got, the dumber he got, and the same thing turns out to be true of me. I used to play a reasonably good game of chess, but always hated end game with so little material still on the board. I kept thinking ‘Oh my God, is it really my turn to move again.’”
“One of my dear brother’s favourite stories, which he got from a newspaper, I think, was about a woman whose car went out of control in a suburb. The car went through front yards, knocking down mailboxes and picket fences and post lanterns and shrubbery and so on. But then it made a u-turn at the end of the block, and went through the backyards of the same houses, wrecking barbecues and wading pools and teeter-totters and slides and so on. It finally stopped up against a big tree. The woman, miraculously, was still OK. When asked why she hadn’t turned off the ignition, she said, ‘I was too busy steering.’ So whenever I’ve broken your large and blameless heart, it was because I was too busy steering.”
Even now, I find this comforting in some strange way. I find his writing comforting, again, for that honesty. There’s no point trying to reframe death, old age and regret. But you can at least be truthful about it.
When you think you’re done with a writer, they come back and surprise you, I guess. It makes sense that Vonnegut’s letters would be inspiring me to write now, making me feel better about who I am, making me feel like less of a failure. When I was seventeen and I read Slaughterhouse-five for the first time, it woke me up to literature in a way that no book had done before, because it was a book that made me think “I didn’t know you could do that!” It broke all the rules, and it worked. So I guess it’s appropriate that five years later he’d still be teaching me something about what you’re allowed to do and say and think. Also, that sometimes the best way to express yourself is to be simple and honest.
In the collection of his commencement speeches, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? he writes:
(Isn’t it such a relief to have somebody say that?)