Sunday, 18 April 2010


Or Lonesome No More. by Kurt Vonnegut.

Mr Vonnegut is possibly my favourite ever author. I say 'possibly' because Terry Pratchett might--shut up, it could happen--be reading this blog, and I don't want to hurt his feelings.
But if Kurt is looking down from Heaven (or The Turkey Farm), he'll know what I mean.

The reasons:

He is wise. I don't use that word very much, without irony. But it applies here. Slapstick is not alone among his novels in being an undisguised manifesto on the basic human need for community, why we lack it and how to get it back.

He is compelling. He has a unique and distinctive voice that make all his novels, short stories and non-fiction blend into one in my memory--and I cannot get enough of it. It shouldn't work like that. He makes a point of telling the reader as much as possible, straight away. There is no suspense, no attempt to keep people reading by witholding the solution. He just tells you.
Yet somehow, at the end of each section--of which there are 3 or 4 per page--you need to read the next one. At the end of each chapter--sometimes only a page and a half--you need to read the next one.

He is funny and inventive. He interrupts his own narrative to tell you his favourite joke.. He covers whole novels in a chapter ot two. I genuinely lost count of how many times during Slapstick I thought 'that would make a great novel,' about something Vonnegut mentions in a throwaway line, or quick summary. This one story could have provided him with the plots for an entire literary career.

It's hard to know what I can learn from all this, though. Everything I admire in his approach is completely unique to him. It all comes down to his voice: his anecdotal, stop-start,matter-of-fact, sloganising, moral punchlining, voice.
It's impossible to imitate the voice, but hard not to, as well. When I'm reading a Vonnegut, I even start to think like him. So it goes.

So instead of trying to distill some writing tip from my own reading of his work, I will just remember the ones he mentions explicitly in the prologue. Cheating? No way. I make the rules, anyway. Rule #26, 'it's okay to take advice directly from the author of lots of great novels, rather than muck around trying to find your own advice in his analysis-defeating prose.'

Rule #26 is one of my favourites.

In the prologue, Vonnegut says:

1. Write for one person. "Any creation which has any wholeness and harmoniousness, I suspect, was made by an artist or inventor with an audience of one in mind."

Now the accidental shifting of tone, emphasis and intent is something I have a problem with, in my writing. And that is exactly what Vonnegut avoids, and he's telling me exactly how he does it. I really should adopt this. I'm not one of these people who can write 'for myself,' nor do I think 'if I like it, other people will.' I need to write to please other people.
I just don't know who to pick. I may start holding auditions.

2. Writing is hard work. Vonnegut quotes friends on the subject, who say the definition of a writer is someone who hates writing, and that you never hear of a blacksmith who loved his anvil.

This is something I'm learning all the time. I'm pretty good at making sure I sit down and write a lot. But then when I get stuck, or spend time away from whatever I'm writing, I am too weak. I never get back to the anvil.
One thing I do is get disheartened by my bad writing. That's like Mr Blacksmith looking at his unfinished sword (that's what they make, right?) and stopping, because it wouldn't yet kill a man. Well, it's unfinished. It's not meant to be lethal. Get back to work.
But sometimes it's easier to stop and do a couple of horseshoes instead.

I should get back to work.


  1. All they ever make is swords.

    Interesting thing on the writing for one. I think I do but there is also that part of, will others find this funny/ intersting.

    Basically Kurt knew.

  2. I'm willing to audition for the post of person to be written to. I know nothing about writing, but I do like reading- is that enough to qualify me?

  3. It's really hard not to pick up the tone of authors you really like. I hear myself thinking like Jane Austen for weeks after I've finished with her.

    Nerd note: Technically it's a bladesmith who makes swords. It's a highly specialized art. Blacksmiths make anything made of iron, which could be a sword, but in most villages wouldn't have been.

  4. I am absolutely crazy about Kurt Vonnegut, but I rarely agree with his advice on writing. That's ok cause none of us does it the same way. I'd say the best lesson one can learn from Vonnegut is that being completely true to your own voice is the goal, the only goal ultimately. There are all sorts of side goals about getting published and finding an audience for one's work, but while the work is going on the goal is being as honestly yourself as you can handle.

    I can't say I agree with the anvil metaphor though. I love to write; writing is the only time in my day when I feel strong, capable, able to handle life. Yeah, it's hard work; that's why I need to love it. If I didn't love it I wouldn't come back to it, even when it sucks.