January 4th, 2013

I think that every aspiring journalist should read and heed the advice offered to Mrs. Harris by Kurt Vonnegut. Much of what I think is wrong with Journalism today comes from college educations; not in matters of the world such as science, the arts, social studies or maths, but rather in Journalism. There is nothing anyone can learn about journalism that a good editor cannot teach you in a fortnight, the rest is all practice. Not quite all on one foot, but pretty damn close.

-– to Mrs. Josephine Harris on 13 April 1970

Dear Mrs. Harris

I went to a high school which had a daily paper so everybody was crazy about writing. Many good writers have come from Shortridge — because of the paper. The Student writers get an immediate response from an audience rather than from one tired teacher. This makes writing seem exciting and relevant.

It takes about two years for a student to show important changes in his ability to write. Creative writing programs lasting only a semester or a year simply don’t allow enough time for growth. Ideally, the student should have the same teacher for two years.

The teacher should think of assisting the student to become a writer, rather than think of teaching a student how to write. The teacher should watch for clues as to what the student is attempting to become, then to help the student become that. It is cruel and destructive to make the student try to become something he was not meant to become. He can become only what he was meant to be.

Good luck

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

From Kurt Vonnegut: Letters edited by Dan Wakefieid. p. 157-8

My high school newspaper published, I think, once a month, although it might have been once a quarter, I cannot remember. At Ohio University, however, we had a daily: The Post, which gave the local daily, The Athens Messenger, a literal run for its money and if I have any regrets about college it is that I did not become a posty on day one.

Posties were known for taking barely enough hours each quarter to keep full-time-student status and for maintaining grade point averages that even althletes might have looked down upon, but damn, did they write. A lot. I had not yet learned the lesson that you become a writer by writing and not by taking classes on writing. I cannot think of a single journalist whom I admire and might want to emulate — Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Studs Terkle, Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko leap to mind — who went to college to become journalists.

What writers do need are mentors, individuals willing to read and honestly comment on what they are writing.


  1. Vonnegut’s zany and surreal world reflects the absurdity of our own and really bent my mind to different modes of thinking. His work has inspired my own visual arts for quite some time and I created a tribute illustration of the author with the help of an old typewriter. Tell me how his work and words also affected you.

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