mad in pursuit journal

DISPATCHED FROM THE CROSSROADS

Kurt Vonnegut Jr (1922-2007)

Another old darling knocks himself into the great beyond.

My Kurt Vonnegut obsession occurred during my last year of college (1969-70), when the world was caught up in the angst of Vietnam and he published "Slaughterhouse Five." I loved him because his voice was unique — he could be so silly, but still had a tragic sense of life.

"Slaughterhouse Five" delivers up his World War II experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the fire-bombing. The plot has time travel and other science fiction elements — perhaps it's the American interpretation of magic realism, which arises out of powerlessness in the face of tyranny.

You are who you pretend to be.*

I was a Spanish/Portuguese literature major with a sudden intense interest in religion and mythology. Kurt Vonnegut got me interested in how life experiences evolve into stories, how community experiences evolve into mythologies.

It intrigued me that Vonnegut had an amazing ringside seat at one of the major horrors of World War II. Yet it took him more than thirty years to tell the story. What finally emerged was not a memoir or piece of journalism. It was a crazy fictional ride into how the mind copes with madness.

I've often worried that I missed my opportunity to write up my life's great little adventures — like a reporter who missed this week's news cycle. But Vonnegut was the first author who taught me that good stories may take a long time to ripen into a tale worth telling. With bookstore shelves filled with memoirs written by 25-year-olds, I always have to remind myself of that.

*

[Wikipedia] On pages 9 and 10 of his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:

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 pages.

4.13.07

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NOTES

*From one of Kurt Vonnegut's characters. For some reason it always stuck with me.

 

 

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