MEDITATION ON KURT VONNEGUT: I…

January 1st, 2013

Good morning all,

I’ve taken a few weeks off from publishing here, but not from reading, thinking and writing, and one of my accomplishments during this time has been to read the correspondence of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. as published in Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield. As has long been my practice, I copied out passages that I found interesting or thought producing for my electronic chapbook.

Over at Powells I left this review of the book:

Good afternoon all,

I discovered Kurt Vonnegut when, I think in 7th or 8th grade, my father gave me a Dell paperback copy ($1.25) of “Player Piano;” “Mother Night,” “Breakfast of Champions” and “Slaughterhouse-Five’ quickly followed.

Vonnegut’s non-fiction works are also familiar to me and though I thought I understood a bit about the writer behind the stories, Wakefield’s collection of the Master’s letters have opened many windows for me. So much so, that I have added more than 20 extended passages from his letters to my electronic chapbook and now want to go back over the next year are re-read Vonnegut’s opus.

Much is made of Mark Twain as the greatest American writer, and while in the 20th century English departments champion Fitzgerald and Hemingway and a score of others, for my money, Vonnegut, for his clarity, honesty and heart, is second only to Twain.

I have never before read an entire volume of a writer’s correspondence. I now believe that has been a mistake. Vonnegut writes to his brother in 1995 (p. 361) that:

“Any work of art is one half of a conversation between two human beings, and it helps a lot to know who is talking to you. Does he or she have a reputation of seriousness, for sincerity…? So I dare suggest that no picture can attract serious attention without a human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind.”

Vonnegut was speaking about paintings, but I think his words must apply to writing as well and before today I would have disagreed with anyone suggesting that writing cannot stand alone. Now I am not sure and this is just one of the many thoughts from Vonnegut’s letters that have me thinking.

Do all you can to make today a good day,

Jeff Hess
Have Coffee Will Write

As I considered how I might re-open Have Coffee Will Write for the new year, I decided that I wasn’t writing enough myself. That I was tossing interesting bits, for me, of dinner-time conversation on the table for a few good friends, but not hearing much said back. Vonnegut might have responded: “So it goes.”

My choice for a starting point is not directly from Vonnegut’s communications, but rather a commentary that Wakefield wrote as an introduction to the third section of the book: “The Sixties.” Here is what he wrote:

Had Slaughterhouse-Five been written and published in the 1950s, it would not have made the same impact. The timing of the novel’s publication was eerily right, for by 1969 many Americans had become critical of the war in Vietnam, not only because the Tet Offensive of 1968 illustrated how badly we were faring in the conflict but also because of the revelation of atrocities like the My Lai Massacre, the use of napalm against civilian populations and the saturation bombing of Cambodia and Laos that began in March of 1969 – the same month Slaughterhouse-Five was published. A novel based on the firebombing of Dresden during WWII would not have seemed relevant in the preceding decade as it did now; it would not have struck such a nerve.

The events in Vietnam and the protests against the draft, led by college students, increased the growing influence of the youth culture, who made Vonnegut their literary hero in questioning the accepted wisdom of the status quo. Kurt was as surprised as anyone and had never wanted to be a “spokesperson” of the young.

– Dan Wakefield’s introduction to “The Sixties” from his Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. p. 75

Writing is a matter of desire, practice and acquired skill. Publishing is a matter of luck. One of the realities that has kept me sane (and writing) over the years is that rejection letters may be the result of a flat tire or indigestion caused by “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato,” and are not necessarily the result of bad writing.

I think Wakefield’s observation here is spot on. Why didn’t Vonnegut write Slaughterhouse-Five in the ’40s when the memories of Dresden were fresh? Why did he need more than 20, but not 25 or 30, years to shape his narrative? Did he need distance? Did he need skill? Did he need time to process? Perhaps all of those or none of those.

Would Slaughterhouse-Five have been a success if published in 1974? In 1979? We can’t know. Perhaps other events would have created another clearly obvious convergence. Who knows?

This is important, however, for my own writing. I write. A lot. I’ve only finished, however, one novel, Cold Silence, completed in the mid-’90s. The book began with an idea for a murder scene in the ’70s, was typed at for a couple of years in the early ’90s and finally written in about 90 days.

I have been typing at my current project, Absent Son, for more than five years — I have hundreds of pages written — but have yet to produce a finished first draft. There is, I believe, a Vonnegutian crossroads approaching for my book and I mean to be ready when the bus rumbles through.

Writing is work. Publishing is luck. The latter, however, cannot happen without the former and, as always, the solution is butt in chair; write.

Do all you can to make today a good day,

Jeff

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