Saturday, April 21, 2007

Remembering Kurt Vonnegut

The inimitable Kurt Vonnegut died while I was wrestling with my spring sickness, and, a bit belatedly, I wanted to offer my own small tribute to this American literary genius.

I love his eight premises of Creative Writing 101, in the Intro to Bagombo Snuff Box (he called those early stories
"a bunch of Buddhist catnaps.") Here they are:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will
not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass
of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or
advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading
characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the
reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make
love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as
possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete
understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could
finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few

I love the earthy concision of these bits of advice. He then says
that Flannery O'Connor was the greatest short story writer of his
generation, and she broke practically every one of his rules but the
first. "Great writers tend to do that," he wrote. RIP, Vonnegut.


Bob Forbes said...

Macy - You struck a chord again with your memory of this unique and inspiring man. I know it seems weird to describe an author who often worked on such depressing themes in that vein, but he certainly became inspiring to me soon after I was introduced to his collection of short stories, "Welcome to the Monkey House" when I was about 18. I became hooked for the next couple of years on the writings of this man who saw the world differently than anyone else I had encountered up to that point. Even in the depth of his depression he was able to imagine possibilities that gave his readers a glimmer of hope. I moved on to "Slaughterhouse Five," "Cat's Cradle," "Sirens of Titan," and "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" all in the course of a summer. I was quite surprised when my mother even picked up my paperback of the last book I mentioned because she said that Eliot Rosewater (shown sitting on the toilet in his long underwear on the book's cover) bore a striking resemblance to my paternal grandfather. Then when she read a few chapters of the book, she said he acted like my grandfather too. So Kurt Vonnegut gave me my first real glimpse into the storied life of my father's dad who had died 2 years before I was born. I also remember how Vonnegut influenced a number of us in our Peace Corps group as we repeated his line "...and so it goes," in response to inexplicable things that seemed to occur with amazing regularity in the Kingdom of Tonga, don't you?
'Ofa atu,
Lopeti F.

Macy said...

Great reminiscences here, Bob -- and so good to hear from you again. The part about Eliot Rosewater looking like your grandfather is a particularly rich detail. Thanks for keeping in touch.

Bob Forbes said...

Dear Macy - You opened the door just enough with your remark about Eliot Rosewater's resemblance to my grandfather Gus Forbes, that I'm obliged to add a little more to my earlier comment.

It is such a vivid memory for me when I was 18 or so, reading Vonnegut's "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" while hanging around at my parents' home for a few days between college semesters. My mother, who had long since stopped taking any interest in the weird stuff I was reading as a teenager, suddenly picked up my paperback one day and pointed to the cover picture of Mr. Rosewater on the toilet in his long underwear with his bottle of bourbon and 'other medications' close at hand. She blurted out, "That's Papa Gus!" referring to her father-in-law and my grandfather, Gus Forbes.

Then she proceeded to tell me that, in his later years, Grandpa Gus would spend a good part of many mornings "relaxing" on his throne in the bathroom with a drink of whiskey and the morning newspaper. At times, he would call out to his wife from behind the closed door, "Emma, bring me another drink!" She complied of course (this being the late 1940's), but confided to my mother that she considered such service to her ol' hubby to be really demeaning, and she could hardly stand it...

My Grandpa Gus Forbes was a successful gentleman farmer and tobacconist of his day, and a highly respected man in eastern North Carolina. The Pitt County Historical Society asked me to do a brief biography on him for their Chronicles a couple of years ago, and I gladly complied. Parts of it are a hoot and I'd be glad to share with you, upon request, of course;-)

Nofo a e!
Lopeti F.