Sir Ian McKellen Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Letter to High School Students: Make Art and “Make Your Soul Grow”

Author Kurt Von­negut was pos­sessed of a droll, unsen­ti­men­tal pub­lic speak­ing style. A son of Indi­anapo­lis, he nev­er lost his Hoosier accent, despite lengthy stints in Cape Cod and New York City.

Actor Ian McK­ellen, on the oth­er hand, exudes warmth. He’s a charmer who tells a sto­ry with a twin­kle in his eye, alter­ing his voice and facial expres­sions to height­en the effect. (Check out his Mag­gie Smith.) Vocal train­ing has only enhanced his beau­ti­ful instru­ment. (He can make a tire repair man­u­al sound like Shake­speare.)

These two lions may have come at their respec­tive crafts from dif­fer­ent angles, but Sir Ian did Von­negut proud, above, as part of Let­ters Live, an ongo­ing cel­e­bra­tion of the endur­ing pow­er of lit­er­ary cor­re­spon­dence.

The let­ter in ques­tion was penned the year before Vonnegut’s death, in reply to five stu­dents at a Jesuit high school in New York City, regret­ful­ly declin­ing their invi­ta­tion to vis­it.

Instead, he gave them two assign­ments.

One was fair­ly uni­ver­sal, the sort of thing one might encounter in a com­mence­ment address: make art and in so doing, learn about life, and your­self.

The oth­er was more con­crete:

Write a 6 line rhyming poem

Don’t show it or recite it to any­one.

Tear it up into lit­tle pieces

Dis­card the pieces in wide­ly sep­a­rat­ed trash recep­ta­cles


A chance for Xavier High School’s all male stu­dent body to air roman­tic feel­ings with­out fear of  dis­cov­ery or rejec­tion?

May­haps, but the true pur­pose of the sec­ond assign­ment is encap­su­lat­ed in the first—to “expe­ri­ence becom­ing” through a cre­ative act.

This notion clear­ly strikes a chord with Sir Ian, 17 years younger than Von­negut but by the time of the  2016 per­for­mance, clos­ing in on the igua­na-like age Von­negut had been when he wrote the let­ter.

Should we attribute the quiver on the clos­ing line to act­ing or gen­uine emo­tion on Sir Ian’s part?

Either way, it’s a love­ly ren­di­tion.

Novem­ber 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lock­wood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Bat­ten, Mau­r­er and Con­gius­ta:

I thank you for your friend­ly let­ters. You sure know how to cheer up a real­ly old geezer (84) in his sun­set years. I don’t make pub­lic appear­ances any more because I now resem­ble noth­ing so much as an igua­na. 

What I had to say to you, more­over, would not take long, to wit: Prac­tice any art, music, singing, danc­ing, act­ing, draw­ing, paint­ing, sculpt­ing, poet­ry, fic­tion, essays, reportage, no mat­ter how well or bad­ly, not to get mon­ey and fame, but to expe­ri­ence becom­ing, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seri­ous­ly! I mean start­ing right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a fun­ny or nice pic­ture of Ms. Lock­wood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the show­er and on and on. Make a face in your mashed pota­toes. Pre­tend you’re Count Drac­u­la.

Here’s an assign­ment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lock­wood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about any­thing, but rhymed. No fair ten­nis with­out a net. Make it as good as you pos­si­bly can. But don’t tell any­body what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to any­body, not even your girl­friend or par­ents or what­ev­er, or Ms. Lock­wood. OK?

Tear it up into tee­ny-wee­ny pieces, and dis­card them into wide­ly sep­a­rat­ed trash recep­ti­cals. You will find that you have already been glo­ri­ous­ly reward­ed for your poem. You have expe­ri­enced becom­ing, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Von­negut

(Ian McKellen’s oth­er Let­ters Live per­for­mance is a fic­tion­al com­ing out let­ter from Armis­tead Maupin’s Tales of the City, from a gay char­ac­ter to his Ani­ta Bryant-sup­port­ing par­ents.)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1988, Kurt Von­negut Writes a Let­ter to Peo­ple Liv­ing in 2088, Giv­ing 7 Pieces of Advice

Why Should We Read Kurt Von­negut? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

Kurt Von­negut Offers 8 Tips on How to Write Good Short Sto­ries (and Amus­ing­ly Graphs the Shapes Those Sto­ries Can Take)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Sep­tem­ber 9 for anoth­er sea­son of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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