Kurt Vonnegut on the Writer’s Responsibility, the Limitations of the Brain, and Why the Universe Exists: A Rare 1974 WNYC Interview

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“We have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it, which will be accepted.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

Kurt Vonnegut endures not only as one of the most beloved writers of the past century, but also as a kind of modern sage, with wisdom ranging from his insight on the shapes of stories to his 8 rules for writing with style to his life-advice to his children. In June of 1974, Walter James Miller, host of WNYC’s Reader’s Almanac program, sat down with the celebrated author shortly after the publication of Breakfast of Champions, the tale of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast,” for an interview recently uncovered by William Rodney Allen, editor of the fantastic 1988 anthology Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut (public library).

In this wide-ranging and wonderful conversation from the WNYC archives, Vonnegut talks to Miller about everything from the novel to Hemingway and Twain to the responsibility of writers and the origin of the universe. Transcribed highlights below — enjoy:

https://www.wnyc.org/widgets/ondemand_player/#file=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.wnyc.org%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F331301%2F;containerClass=wnyc

On the role of the writer in society, touching on E. B. White’s timeless wisdom, and how myth-making shapes culture — pause-giving food for thought amidst the BuzzFeed age of myth-making-for-profit:

It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that writers are not marginal to our society, that they, in fact, do all our thinking for us, that we are writing myths and our myths are believed, and that old myths are believed until someone writes a new one.

[…]

I think writers should be more responsible than they are, as we’ve imagined for a long time that it really doesn’t matter what we say. I also often have First-Amendment schizophrenia — there’s a lot that I wish wasn’t popular and in circulation, I think there is a lot of damaging material in circulation. . . I think it’s a beginning for authors to acknowledge that they are myth-makers and that if they are widely read, will have an influence that will last for many years — I don’t think that there’s a strong awareness of that now, and we have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it, which will be accepted.

On science, our brush with eternity, the limitations of our cognitive awarenesshow the universe came to be, and our fluid experience of time:

I do have a strong idea about the limitations of the computer in our skulls — it’s just large enough to take care of our lives and must ignore an awful lot of what is going on around us. . . . I have a very primitive approach to science — I wonder how the universe originated, how could it have originated … how could you make something out of nothing … and sophomoric ideas like that. And so, after having banged around with that — how do you make a universe out of nothing — I have decided, just logically, that it can’t be done and therefore it must always have existed. And so, from that, I get a sense of permanence and, also, an annoyance with the limitations of my head. And I really do think that what we perceive as time is simply a processing device in our heads to let us consider a little of reality at a time — we couldn’t let it all come in at once.

(On the question of how the universe originated, John Updike would come to echo Vonnegut in asserting that “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain.”)

For more of Vonnegut’s undying wisdom, do track down a copy of the (sadly) out-of-print Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut — it spans the practical and the philosophical, and lives up to Vonnegut’s promise:

I’ve worked with enough students to know what beginning writers are like, and if they will just talk to me for twenty minutes I can help them so much, because there are such simple things to know. Make a character want something — that’s how you begin.

Edgar Allan Poe on the Joy of Marginalia and What Handwriting Reveals about Character

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“In the marginalia … we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly — boldly — originally — with abandonment — without conceit.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

“Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author,” Mortimer Adler wrote in his timeless 1940 meditation on marginalia as the yin-yang of reading and writing, adding: “Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.” As a prolific and meticulous marginalian myself, I have paid tomes’ worth of respect to my beloved authors over the years. Billy Collins even dedicated a beautiful poem to the mesmerism of marginalia, and medieval monks used the medium, long before the coinage of the term in 1819, as a canvas for entertaining complaints. But history’s greatest champion of marginalia was arguably Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809–October 7, 1849).

In 1844, the godfather of the detective story began a column for The Democratic Review titled Marginalia, collecting his fragmentary reflections on writing and celebrating the joy of conversing with literature in its margins. It ran for five years and was later included in The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Vol. 2 (public library).

It’s hard not to grieve the loss of this peculiar form of personal critical commentary as we transition to digital text — which is yet to solve the question of annotation — so it pays to consider what it is, exactly, that we’re losing. In the inaugural installment of his column, Poe captures the allure of transacting thoughts with an author in the margins of his work:

In getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general. Where what I have to note is too much to be included within the narrow limits of a margin, I commit it to a slip of paper, and deposit it between the leaves; taking care to secure it by an imperceptible portion of gum tragacanth paste.

But more than a mere personal indulgence or quirk, Poe argues that marginalia are a playground for ideas and for intellectual discourse — with the author, as well as with one’s own mind at its most uninhibited:

All this may be whim; it may be not only a very hackneyed, but a very idle practice; — yet I persist in it still; and it affords me pleasure; which is profit. . . . This making of notes, however, is by no means the making of mere memoranda — a custom which has its disadvantages, beyond doubt. . . . In fact, if you wish to forget anything upon the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.

But the purely marginal jottings, done with no eye to the Memorandum Book, have a distinct complexion, and not only a distinct purpose, but none at all; this it is which imparts to them a value. They have a rank somewhat above the chance and desultory comments of literary chit-chat — for these latter are not infrequently “talk for talk’s sake,” hurried out of the mouth; while the marginalia are deliberately penciled, because the mind of the reader wishes to unburden itself of a thought; — however flippant — however silly — however trivial — still a thought indeed, not merely a thing that might have been a thought in time, and under more favorable circumstances. In the marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly — boldly — originally — with abandonment — without conceit…

In line with the notion that constraints fuel creative thought, Poe asserts that the very medium to which marginalia are confined causes our ideas to coalesce into cohesion:

The circumscription of space, too, in these pencilings, has in it something more of advantage than of inconvenience. It compels us (whatever diffuseness of idea we may clandestinely entertain), into Montesquieu-ism, into Tacitus-ism (here I leave out of view the concluding portion of the “Annals”) — or even into Carlyle-ism — a thing which, I have been told, is not to be confounded with your ordinary affectation and bad grammar. I say “bad grammar,” through sheer obstinacy, because the grammarians (who should know better) insist upon it that I should not. But then grammar is not what these grammarians will have it; and, being merely the analysis of language, with the result of this analysis, must be good or bad just as the analyst is sage or silly…

One of Gustave Doré’s 1883 illustrations for Poe’s “The Raven”

In a later meditation, Poe considers — curmudgeonly, nitpickerly, with a charming blend of sincerity and cynicism — marginalia’s most necessary vehicle: handwriting — yet another gravely endangered species in the age of digital text. Asserting that personal script, even when only intended for oneself, should answer to the era’s standards for epistolary etiquette, Poe argues that handwriting is a window into one’s core attributes of character:

I am far more than half serious in all that I have ever said about manuscript, as affording indication of character.

The general proposition is unquestionable — that the mental qualities will have a tendency to impress the MS [manuscript]. The difficulty lies in the comparison of this tendency, as a mathematical force, with the forces of the various disturbing influences of mere circumstance. But — given a man’s purely physical biography, with his MS., and the moral biography may be deduced.

The actual practical extent to which these ideas are applicable, is not sufficiently understood. For my own part, I by no means shrink from acknowledging that I act, hourly, upon estimates of character derived from chirography. The estimates, however, upon which I depend, are chiefly negative. For example: a man may not always be a man of genius, or a man of taste, or a man of firmness, or a man of any other quality, because he writes this hand or that; but then there are MSS. which no man of firmness, or of taste, or of genius, ever did, will, or can write. There is a certain species of hand-writing, — and a quite “elegant” one it is, too; although I hesitate to describe it, because it is written by some two or three thousand of my personal friends, — a species of hand-writing, I say, which seems to appertain, as if by prescriptive right, to the blockhead, and which has been employed by every donkey since the days of Cadmus, — has been penned by every gander since first a grey goose yielded a pen.

Now, were any one to write me a letter in this MS., requiring me to involve myself with its inditer in any enterprise of moment and of risk, it would be only on the score of the commonest civility that I would condescend to send him a reply.

Complement with Mary Gordon on the joy of writing by hand and some curious marginalia found in second-hand books.

Samuel Johnson on Writing and Creative Doggedness

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“Composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

English poet, essayist,literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (September 18, 1709–December 13, 1784) endures as one of the most influential figures in literary history. His Dictionary of the English Language, originally published in 1755, is celebrated as one of the highest achievements of Western scholarship. A brilliant man yet a confounding figure in his lifetime, his peculiar tics and quirky gestures were only posthumously diagnosed as Tourette’s syndrome.

He was also a man of uncommon sagacity, which was collected a century after his death in the 1888 volume Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson (public librarypublic domain). Here are some of Johnson’s most timeless insights on writing — a fine addition to this omnibus of great writers’ wisdom on the craft.

Like Thomas Edison, who believed that “success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application,” and Alexander Graham Bell, who argued that It is the man who carefully advances step by step … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” Johnson reminds us that writing is an undertaking that requires remarkable self-discipline:

Composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.

In a sentiment later echoed by E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), Chuck Close (“inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), and Neil Gaiman (“If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist.”), Johnson insists that doggedness outweighs “inspiration”:

A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.

And yet he offers a disclaimer — a cushion against the cult of productivity:

Do not fancy that an intermission of writing is a decay of kindness. No man is always in a disposition to write, nor has any man at all times something to say.

Like Zadie Smith, who counseled to “resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied,” and Neil Gaiman, who advised to “keep moving” because “perfection is like chasing the horizon,” Johnson admonishes that getting too hung up on perfectionism ensures frustration rather than elegance:

It is one of the common distresses of a writer to be within a word of a happy period, to want only a single epithet to give amplification its full force, to require only a correspondent term in order to finish a paragraph with elegance and make one of its members answer to the other: but these deficiencies cannot always be supplied; and after a long study and vexation, the passage is turned anew, and the web unwoven that was so nearly finished.

Like Ray Bradbury, who asserted that the only way to write well is to write intensely and emotionally, and only when you’re done to think about it and revise, Johnson advocates for letting the intuitive mind, free and uninhibited, shape the initial stages of ideation, only later allowing the rational mind to filter and edit:

The production of something, where nothing was before, is an act of greater energy than the expansion or decoration of the thing produced. Set down diligently your thoughts as they rise in the first words that occur; and, when you have matter, you will easily give it form: nor, perhaps, will this method always be necessary; for by habit your thoughts and diction will flow together.

For more notable wisdom on the written word, complement Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson with Elmore Leonard’10 rules of writingWalter Benjamin’thirteen doctrinesH. P. Lovecraft’advice to aspiring writersF. Scott Fitzgerald’letter to his daughterZadie Smith’10 rules of writingKurt Vonnegut’8 keys to the power of the written wordDavid Ogilvy’10 no-bullshit tipsHenry Miller’11 commandmentsJack Kerouac’30 beliefs and techniquesJohn Steinbeck’6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’synthesized learnings.