Jonathan Smith // Blog Writer
It’s not often that I pick up a writer’s work and refuse to put it down, but that’s precisely what happens upon reading Kurt Vonnegut. I hadn’t heard of him until I attended a sample class during Picture Yourself at Emerson Day while still a senior in high school. The professor in charge had each prospective student read aloud a paragraph of Vonnegut’s “How to Write With Style.” Not only did my understanding of the craft of writing change, but my library also grew as a result of this reading.
Vonnegut outlines eight invaluable tips for writers in this guide—with the emphasis placed on fiction and non-fiction writers as well as poets. Vonnegut’s first recommendation for writers is to find a subject that they care about, and that their readers should care about as well. “It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style,” Vonnegut notes. In my experience, the hardest part of writing has been coming up with topics that I care strongly about. Now I spend extensive time in prewriting mode to make sure that what I want to say is accounted for.
Perhaps the most significant advice Vonnegut gives to his audience besides the aforementioned recommendation is that writers should always sound like themselves. “I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am,” Vonnegut asserts. This facet is indeed the most personal spin authors can place on their work. Anybody can write a short story about what life will be like in 2081; only Vonnegut can construct each sentence with his unique vernacular.
This latter concept is the premise of “Harrison Bergeron,” which is the first Vonnegut short story I ever read. “Harrison Bergeron” offers a cynical view of America in 2081, with the passing of the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution establishing so-called complete equality. However, this is only possible because the government has placed mental and physical barriers on its citizens—be it forty-seven pounds of weights around the shoulders or glasses that cause headaches and lapses in vision. Anyone who tries to remove these barriers is shocked. It’s up to Harrison Bergeron to oppose this unjust government and attempt to restore balance in this science-fiction thriller.
What stands out most in examining this story once more is how consistent Vonnegut is with his work. “Harrison Bergeron” is rife with quick, sharp sentences and Vonnegut’s signature dark humor. The short story needs to be read a few times in order to fully grasp Vonnegut’s intentions. I’m still finding new concepts that I missed in my first few read-throughs, but the political commentary is remarkable.
In a research writing class at Emerson I had the opportunity to read Mother Night, which is just one of
Vonnegut’s many thought-provoking novels. I read it in two days. Vonnegut’s chapter length normally maxes out at five pages, so every scene moves along briskly. I almost spoiled content in class on multiple occasions, but caught myself just before I could. Mother Night is the source of Vonnegut’s most famous quote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Simple. True. Pure Vonnegut.
Vonnegut passed away in 2007 at the age of 84. Not only did we lose a phenomenal writer, but we also lost a compassionate human being. His legacy is in his morals, in his words. And his work will forever live on. I began reading Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions and The Sirens of Titan recently, but I’m trying to take my time reading his work. Slaughterhouse-Five, a semi-autobiographical novel that focuses on the Allied firebombing of Dresden during World War II, is one in particular that I cannot wait to read. I plan on reading all of his work. And then re-reading all of his work. Again and again and again.
Among the many morals that Vonnegut preached during his lifetime, there is one from his novel A Man Without a Country by which I live my life: “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” Classic Vonnegut.