One of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, died this past week at the age of 84. He led a pretty incredible life. Born in 1922 in Indiana, he began his writing career at his high school newspaper, The Daily Echo. He briefly attended Butler U, but dropped out when a professor said his stories were not good enough. He then went to Cornell (41-42) where he served as an editor for the student newspaper and majored in biochemistry. He enrolled at Carnegie Mellon in 1943 but studied there only briefly before enlisting in the Army (it was WWII).
In the army he was a scout during the Battle of the Bulge, was cut off from his battalion, and wandered alone behind enemy lines for several days until captured by German troops. There as a POW, Vonnegut witnessed the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden, Germany, which destroyed much of the city. Vonnegut was one of just seven American prisoners of war in Dresden to survive, in an underground meatpacking cellar known as Slaughterhouse Five. He described it as, “Utter destruction. Carnage unfathomable.” This experience formed the core of his most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five and is a theme in at least six other books.
After the war, he attended the U. of Chicago as a grad student in anthropology (he also worked in Chicago as a police reporter). He wrote the novel Cat’s Cradle for his thesis. It’s a great book and i would have thought he’d try to be a writer. But instead, he left Chicago to work in New York for General Electric in the PR department (can you believe he was in PR??).
On the verge of abandoning writing, Vonnegut was offered a teaching job at the Univ. of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. While he was there Cat’s Cradle became a best-seller, and he began writing Slaughterhouse-Five, now considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century, appearing on the 100 best lists of Time magazine and the Modern Library.
I have really enjoyed Kurt’s books, from Cat’s Cradle (and ice-nine) to his short stories in Welcome to the Money House. His characters are always extremely interesting and unique. His mind was so creative.
Here are some rules he had for writers.
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
His last published words were the poem Requiem:
When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
“It is done.”
People did not like it here.
He was great.