One of the best Kurt Vonnegut stories is one he didn’t write.
Teachers at Xavier High School in Manhattan asked their students to write letters to famous authors. Vonnegut was the only one who wrote back.
Vonnegut was 84 years old at the time and living 30 blocks away in a townhouse at 228 East 48th street.
Within a year he would be dead, the result of brain injuries suffered after a fall.
When he received the letter he had been famous for more than three decades, but suffering from trauma and depression for twice as long.
Vonnegut’s response contains neither foreboding nor woe. It’s light and playful. He tells the students 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.”
He suggested writing a six-lined poem and without showing it to anyone: “Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals [sic]. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”
The tone is all the more remarkable considering the litany of calamities Vonnegut experienced throughout his life.
Born affluent, his family was economically devastated first by Prohibition which wiped out his mother’s family’s liquor business and then the Depression.
Within 12 incredible months starting in May 1944, Vonnegut:
–Discovered his mother died by suicide on Mother’s Day
–Fought in the Battle of the Bulge
–Was captured by the Germans
–Had his prisoner transport bombed
–Avoided the firebombing of Dresden taking refuge in a meat locker
–Excavated bodies from the rubble
–Marched to France with liberated prisoners
–Told family he was alive after being declared MIA
After the war he got married and went to college, but never graduated because his senior thesis was rejected. Still, he landed a job as a publicist at General Electric.
He had three kids and then adopted three more from his sister after she died of cancer just two days after her husband was killed in a train accident.
Vonnegut had moved the family to Cape Cod where he spent almost twenty years grinding out novels. Some garnered critical notice, but he was broke.
In a plot twist right out of a Vonnegut novel, he was awarded a position at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Two years later published SlaughterHouse 5 and became world famous.
His struggles continued, however. He and his wife divorced over a disagreement about religion. He attempted suicide in 1984.
I doubt the Xavier students understood what it took Vonnegut to be successful.
Celebrity often papers over the struggle that preceded it.
Vonnegut became Vonnegut by suffering unspeakable tragegy and then wandering in the literary wilderness for two decades.
Much of his writing grew out of experiences — from suicide to war to divorce and depression — that were unforseen, unwelcome and preferably avoided.
Most of the career advice you find online these days comes packaged in the form of stolid planning and ceaseless repetition.
Vonnegut embraced the grind, but told the students it is the serenditpy of experience that will “make your soul grow.”