Kurt Vonnegut Gives Advice to Aspiring Writers in a 1991 TV Interview

Remem­ber when tele­vi­sion was the big goril­la poised to put an end to all read­ing?

Then along came the mir­a­cle of the Inter­net. Blogs begat blogs, and thus­ly did the peo­ple start to read again!

Of course, many a great news­pa­per and mag­a­zine fell before its mighty engine. So it goes.

So did tele­vi­sion in the old fash­ioned sense. So it goes.

Fun­ny to think that these fast-mov­ing devel­op­ments weren’t even part of the land­scape in 1991, when author Kurt Von­negut swung by his home­town of Indi­anapo­lis to appear on the local pro­gram, Across Indi­ana.

Host Michael Atwood point­ed out the irony of a tele­vi­sion inter­view­er ask­ing a writer if tele­vi­sion was to blame for the decline in read­ing and writ­ing. After which he lis­tened polite­ly while his guest answered at length, com­par­ing read­ing to an acquired skill on par with “ice skat­ing or play­ing the French horn.”

Gee… irony elic­its a more fre­net­ic approach in the age of Buz­zFeed, Twit­ter, and YouTube. (Nailed it!)

Irony and human­i­ty run neck and neck in Vonnegut’s work, but his appre­ci­a­tion for his Hoosier upbring­ing was nev­er less than sin­cere:

When I was born in 1922, bare­ly a hun­dred years after Indi­ana became the 19th state in the Union, the Mid­dle West already boast­ed a con­stel­la­tion of cities with sym­pho­ny orches­tras and muse­ums and libraries, and insti­tu­tions of high­er learn­ing, and schools of music and art, rem­i­nis­cent of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire before the First World War. One could almost say that Chica­go was our Vien­na, Indi­anapo­lis our Prague, Cincin­nati our Budapest and Cleve­land our Bucharest.

To grow up in such a city, as I did, was to find cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions as ordi­nary as police sta­tions or fire hous­es. So it was rea­son­able for a young per­son to day­dream of becom­ing some sort of artist or intel­lec­tu­al, if not a police­man or fire­man. So I did. So did many like me.

Such provin­cial cap­i­tals, which is what they would have been called in Europe, were charm­ing­ly self-suf­fi­cient with respect to the fine arts. We some­times had the direc­tor of the Indi­anapo­lis Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra to sup­per, or writ­ers and painters, and archi­tects like my father, of local renown.

I stud­ied clar­inet under the first chair clar­inetist of our orches­tra. I remem­ber the orchestra’s per­for­mance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Over­ture, in which the can­nons’ roars were sup­plied by a police­man fir­ing blank car­tridges into an emp­ty garbage can. I knew the police­man. He some­times guard­ed street cross­ings used by stu­dents on their way to or from School 43, my school, the James Whit­comb Riley School.  

Vonnegut’s views were shaped at Short­ridge High School, where he num­bered among the many not-yet-renowned writ­ers hon­ing their craft on The Dai­ly Echo. Thought he did­n’t bring it up in the video above, the Echo also yield­ed his nick­name: Snarf.

Von­negut agreed with inter­view­er Atwood that the dai­ly prac­tice of keep­ing a jour­nal is an excel­lent dis­ci­pline for begin­ning writ­ers. He also con­sid­ered jour­nal­is­tic assign­ments a great train­ing ground. He made a point of men­tion­ing that Mark Twain and Ring Lard­ner got their starts as news­pa­per reporters. It may be hard­er for aspir­ing writ­ers to find pay­ing work these days, but the Inter­net is replete with oppor­tu­ni­ties for those who crave a dai­ly assign­ment.

It’s also over­flow­ing with bul­let point­ed lists on how to become a writer, but if you’re like me, you’ll pre­fer to receive this advice from Von­negut, him­self, on a set fes­tooned with farm­ing imple­ments, quilts, and dipped can­dles.

The inter­view con­tin­ues in the remain­ing parts:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Von­negut Reads Slaugh­ter­house-Five

Kurt Von­negut: Where Do I Get My Ideas From? My Dis­gust with Civ­i­liza­tion

Kurt Von­negut Explains “How to Write With Style”

Kurt Von­negut Dia­grams the Shape of All Sto­ries in a Master’s The­sis Reject­ed by U. Chica­go

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, home­school­er, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Like Von­negut, she’s a native of Indi­anapo­lis, and her moth­er was the edi­tor of the Short Ridge Dai­ly Echo. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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