Tag Archives: Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut Month

I have decided that December is Kurt Vonnegut month for me. After getting burned out on forced readings and pretention, it’s nice to have a vacation in the beauty that is Vonnegut.

AdamAsVonnegut

Nice Mustache, buddy. Thanks. Yes, I am growing a mustache. I’m also letting my hair grow out to be the best Vonnegut dopplegänger I can be. You see, I’m trying my best to be Vonnegut for this month. I’m reading a lot of his stuff, and it’s fun to sort of envelop and embody the man.

The reason I’m doing this is that I’m afraid that I’ve been sort of castrated (in a literary sense {not literally}) by a sort of writerly sensibility. I think that’s one of the downsides of working with writers is that we begin to trim the little oddities we all have in our natural voice, and pretty soon, we’ve shaved each other down to that very respectable, very stale college creative writer. In an attempt to avoid cliches, we become the greatest cliche of all, the MFA writer. (Oddly, there’s a decent Spongebob Squarepants episode that I think speaks to this sort of removing of rough edges called, “Not Normal.” Here’s a clip.)

You look nothing like Vonnegut. I know. But the reason I chose Vonnegut is that I feel like he’s an astounding mix of approachable, dark, hilarious, and irreverent. Those are all things I would like to be. I want to have no respect for the self-labeled “intelligentsia” (I had a professor in my undergrad anoint herself and other professors that way), and I want to let personalty traits come out in my writing again, particularly humor.

I mean, that’s probably been the biggest wake-up call for me of late. I’ve basically scrubbed myself right out of my fiction. It’s “acceptable,” it’s “writerly,” sure, but, as my good friend Dustin would say, it’s boring. And it is. I see it. It’s boring and I haven’t loved my work of late because it has become a form of pleasing a certain type of know-it-all reader instead of pleasing readers I actually care about (real people), but more importantly, myself.

Oh, what a surprise, you’re rebelling against authority. Yawn. Well, that’s just it, though. It’s not an authority figure, like a politician or a professor or anything. The thing I’m working against at the moment is a system I’ve bought into and participated in. I’ve trimmed people. I’ve stymied them. I’ve said, “Hey, why don’t you hide behind your words some more, eh?” It’s such a destructive mindset, and I don’t think it creates better writers. Or, maybe it can create better writers, but it does not create exceptional writers, in my opinion. It creates work that is technically good. It’s the sort of stuff that we say, “Well, it’s good, I guess. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

This is not one of your better sermons. Point is, I’m done with that. Scrubbing myself and my personality and what I find exciting and entertaining out of my work is maybe the cardinal sin of writing. Asking if work is “boring” or not, though the question seems simple, is actually a rather compelling way to think about writing, because at the end of the day, what are we doing but entertaining (or not)?

So, I’m curious, from my faithful readers, who would you embody to reclaim the reasons you went into your art?

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Pepper Wellington & The Case Of The Missing Sausage
by Tanya Eby

Pepper Wellington & The Case Of The Missing Sausage is one of the most fun books I’ve read (listened to) in a long time, and in this post, I’ll talk about Tanya Eby’s writing style, audiobooks, and fun reading.

Nice title. It is a nice title. This book is funny, sexual, filled with constant ridiculous double-entendre, and smart. I think the title of this book seems to sum up Tanya Eby‘s writing. Her style is sharp, funny, talented, and yet, approachable.

I know, for me, I often get my nose stuck in books that are “intellectual” or “academic” or, frankly, outright difficult. I rarely read for fun, so when I won a contest where I was able to get an audiobook version of Pepper Wellington & The Case Of The Missing Sausage, I was at first skeptical, but I found it to be a great experience.

You don’t read for fun? Well, often, no, not at first. A lot of what I read is meant to be challenging, not pleasurable. I like the challenge, so I feel satisfied by the end. I’d compare it to lifting weights or running for a few miles. Many of the books I read don’t start off fun, but it feels good to have gotten through them, and I feel like a better person in the end for it.

Eby’s book was a departure for me, in that, it feels like the goal of the book was fun. It’s often easy (especially for us potential academic-types) to dismiss “fun” reading, and yet, I find Ms. Eby’s prose to be sharp and clever, and her characters are real, even in ridiculous situations. I think humor is often hard to appreciate in writing. I don’t write humor well. I can’t do it. It’s the thing I see the least often in writing, and among serious writing folks, it’s one of the things I’ve grown to value the most.

OK, we get it. So what about the book? Well, it’s funny. I’d call it a cross between a Shakespearean comedy, with star-crossed lovers, and an Agatha Christie mystery. The humor goes from witty and sharp, to situational, to (my parents’ favorite word) crass. I love that her humor can occupy all of these forms. I’m reminded of one of my favorite authors, Vonnegut, who never minded when his humor got silly or sexual.

Do you know what a twerp is? When I was in Shortridge High School in Indianapolis 65 years ago, a twerp was a guy who stuck a set of false teeth up his butt and bit the buttons off the back seats of taxi cabs.

So, I guess coming in, I wasn’t sure what to think of the book, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s funny, it’s sexy, and there’s murder and intrigue. One thing I would suggest, though, is this: listen to the audiobook. It turns out that Ms. Eby is a professional narrator as well as a novelist, and she narrated this book. You can find an audiobook version of it at Audible, Amazon, or iTunes. Or you can find all of her works as well as follow a funny and thoughtful blog at her website, TanyaEby.com.

I’ve never been familiar with audiobooks, but I have to say, it was a lot of fun to experience a book that way, and it was especially fun hearing it read by the author. Ms. Eby is a talented and exciting narrator, and I’d recommend buying this book in the audiobook form and hearing it read by the author.

Also, follow Tanya Eby on Twitter. You won’t regret it. She’s very funny.

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Writing Honestly 1: Emotions

What does it mean to write honestly? I look into what it means to write honestly about emotions and to be authentic in story-telling.

Honesty? Yep. To me, the number one thing a writer can do to make his fiction more compelling is to be more emotionally honest. What does that mean? Well, that’s a good question. When I look at so many writers, they can be extremely autobiographical. Orwell is a great example of this. The man didn’t seem to write about anything he didn’t experience.

Still, I’m not suggesting that we write a story about exactly what happened to you on Tuesday. That wouldn’t be fiction. What I’m saying is that writers need to tap into what they’ve felt in their lives and write about it. For example, if you lost a parent early in life, tap into the feelings you had in those moments. I’m not saying every story needs to be about the deaths of parents, but I’m saying that this is something you know, something you’ve been through, and if you’re honest, you’ll write it well.

Don’t writers always do that? Well, not really. It’s tempting to write about characters that are extremely different than us, that don’t go through anything like we’ve gone through, but really, that avoidance of self feels kind of dishonest. Writers need to embrace the hurts, the loves, the abuses, and the losses they’ve had and use them throughout their writing. I mean, where would Vonnegut have been if not for his experience in Dresden?

It can be tough to write about characters from a different time or place, or even of a different sex, because we can’t speak as them, we can’t know what they’re going through. But that’s not true. I’ll admit, I don’t write amazing female characters, but I’ve had some decent ones, and it’s because I’ve tapped into my own experience to inform the character. The reason I am able to do this is that some feelings are universal. If I’ve experienced loss, I can tap into that experience to create the motivations, weaknesses, and pains of a character, and it doesn’t matter who they are. It’ll work, and it’ll make the character feel real.

I think sometimes that we think we can’t write from that place. It’s cheating maybe? It’s autobiographical? I don’t think so. I mean, all art is self-portrait, right? It’s not about telling people exactly what you’ve done, but it’s about sharing that experience. It’s an amazing thing to listen to someone that’s been through a particular trauma or wonder. They can speak to that issue, and they can more deeply understand characters going through similar experiences.

So … So, look in the mirror and be honest. Open up to yourself about some painful or exciting moment, and tap into those feelings. Let your characters’ experience flow from your own, since they are just little brain-children, and can be no more than what you are. Maybe you wish you were more, and to that, I’d suggest experiencing more. Be honest with yourself and with your readers, and I think they will note the difference. Don’t write from false emotion, and don’t avoid emotion. Readers will see when that pain feels real and when it feels dishonest or distant. Don’t intellectualize. Stop preaching and write from a very human place. Your ideals are much better sold by an identifiable character that feels real than some robotic Adonis on a soapbox (yes, I’m looking at you, Ayn).

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“Artificial Roses” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Cool little story. If you follow my blog at all, you’ll know that I’ve been talking about Garcia Marquez a lot lately. He’s been very influential to my writing these last couple of years, in more ways than just “magic.” Although, this gets me to thinking … maybe he’s not so much influential on my writing as he is validating of my writing choices. It’s like I’ve found a kindred writing spirit who feels the same limitations, and feels the need to make some of the same choices I do … like this one for example:

Hints. One of the things I love about Garcia Marquez is that he sets up the reader to be ready for something supernatural to jump into the realistic story, but sometimes, he leaves us wondering. A great example of this is the story “Artificial Roses” from his collection, Big Mama’s Funeral. In “Artificial Roses,” Marquez hints that a character has a supernatural skill, yet, he leaves open the possibility that it could simply be a coincidence or maybe the character is just extremely shrewd. Nevertheless, he has the ability to leave us wondering because of the context of his catalog.

I love how he takes Realism and bends it and twists it until we can’t be entirely sure what we’re seeing, as readers. He does successfully what so many genre writers seek to do, in my opinion. He reinforces his conflicts by pressing against the limits of Realism, yet, his characters and the problems they face are as real as a gravelly road.

How I use it. Right now, I am getting my MFA applications ready to send out, and I have two stories. One of them has a supernatural element, and the other does not. Still, the reading of one will affect the reading of the other. Obviously, this bears out better in a collection or in a catalog of work, but it’s wonderful to make the reader question. Isn’t that the goal in the end? Make the reader question something? Orwell challenges us directly, Vonnegut forces us to face harsh truths, making us question what we believe, but Garcia Marquez makes us question what is laid out directly in front of us in clear, plain text.

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The “What” and the “How” of Writing

The basic idea. So, I was having a discussion with a writer friend of mine. This writer had an interesting element connecting all his stories, yet the sole reason to have that element was that it was “interesting.”

I think when a reader finds something off like that (for example, let’s say every character in the story has spaghetti for hair), the first question they will naturally ask is “WHY?!” This is reasonable, and it’s a powerful tool for the writer, because it allows him to steer the reader, but to add spaghetti hair for no specific reason makes for an intellectual wild goose chase.

I think all writing requires a “What,” which is simply what a writer wants to say. Example, George Orwell thinks English imperialism is lame in Burmese Days.

The “How” is simply how the “What” comes out. So, in our Orwell example, he didn’t just have the main character preach on the evils of imperialism. He used a journalistic style, showing the corruption of the British in Burma, and humanized the Burmese people. The easy and popular thing to do by writers before him was to show how savage the native people were, but Orwell countered that … he “exposed a lie” as he loved to do.

So, the question for every writer must simply begin, “What do I want to talk about?” and then follow with “And how will I illustrate that point?”

Some more examples. So, we’ve talked a bit about Vonnegut, but I want to talk some more about him, because he’s great at this. The man chose, it would seem, to break the idea that there are good guys and bad guys. His life experience as a P.O.W. in Dresden affected a whole lot of his writing, and much of his writing illustrated the point that the Allies (good guys) did some evil things to the Germans (not all bad guys). Vonnegut is basically satirizing nationalism and the notion that some people (though certainly not us {wink}) are “pure evil.” Because of this, Vonnegut uses humor in horrific situations. It’s disarming, but in the same fact, it’s shocking. It shows the sort of emotional disconnect people have in war time about the death of the enemy people, even if it’s civilians.

Ayn Rand. She’s unenjoyable to read, and here is why: She never figured out how to effectively come up with a compelling “How.” Rand is barely even considered a writer today. She’s a philosopher. In that sense, I am impressed by her. She was rather revolutionary to me. I like to think of her as a feminist, in that feminism, in my definition, is for a woman to do whatever she wants despite societal pressures. She had radical ideas, and, though unpopular among most people (religion is bad, altruism is bad, greed is good), she was willing to stand on her soapbox and be unaffected by criticism. Sadly, though, she was bad about illustrating her philosophy. She chose to simply just have her main character say it … AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN … and so on.

Simple idea. What I’m talking about is simple, and maybe it’s obvious to everyone, but sometimes I think we overthink writing. Sometimes it is as simple as figuring out what you’re going to say and how you’re going to illustrate your point effectively.

Reading a lot of stories both in college and for my fiction magazine, Eastown Fiction, I see a lot of authors that do not seem to get this idea. Either they have a solid idea that they approach from the most basic way, patronizing and irritating the reader, or they try something weird and unique, but the images or methods don’t illustrate anything.

It’s easy to focus on tiny details, but unless we get the “What” and “How,” our stories will lack a cohesive thought, and we will not be able to be the perspective-shifters we hope to be in society.

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Literary Remakes

Thought of something interesting today. Why are there so many remakes of songs and films, yet I have never once heard of a novel being remade? I mean, I’ve heard of extensions of stories, reboots, prequels, etc., but I have never heard of an author deciding to himself, “Hey! This book sucks, but it has potential … I think I’ll remake it.”

Maybe it has been done, but I’ve not heard of it.

Full disclosure, I am almost never a fan of remaking an original, and anyone within earshot of me can attest to this fact (For example: The Karate Kid, Planet of the Apes, Transformers {They should have just left it with the 1984 Orson Welles version}, and the terrible, terrible, terrible {I want to stress the terrible} remake of The Who’s famous song “Behind Blue Eyes“. I can cite so many more examples, but you get the point), but there are a few very rare occasions where a remake is appropriate.

The most obvious example of an appropriate literary text for remaking is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I rip on this novel a lot, maybe because I had to read it for three different classes at Eastern Michigan University (Novelists I did not have to read at EMU: Orwell, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Bellow, Vonnegut, Garcia Marquez, Bradbury, O’Connor, Hemingway, and sadly, many more), but mostly because it’s, in my humble opinion, a horribly written book.

Maybe novels are too personal to remake … but are they more personal than songs? I don’t know. It’s odd to me that remakes like this don’t seem to happen.

Frankenstein is a perfect book to remake because the main idea is quite sound. It’s compelling. It has great potential to be exciting, horrific, and tense. Sadly, the writing (sad narrator choices, awful “male” voices, important scenes that seem to get subdued, and the overt tie to another terrible book, Paradise Lost) gets in the way of the story, and because of this, the underlying themes become ineffective and weak.

Maybe I’ll give it a shot someday. I don’t know. Still … I wish I understood why this practice is not more common.

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Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

I love these old covers. This particular binding isn’t so great, and the pages have become stiff with age, but the old cover art is brilliant to me. If you look through most of my library at home, you’ll find that most of the covers list the prices of the books somewhere below a dollar. In this case, it reads 95 cents on the top.

Vonnegut is his normal brilliant self in this book. He’s so great about taking what we think, holding it front of our faces, and saying “Nuh-uh, you’re wrong.” And we are then forced to agree.

In this case, Vonnegut calls into question the nature of evil. The main character of the book is an American spy who played the part of a brilliant Nazi propagandist. At first, the reader has sympathy for him, because he was just serving his country, but as the book goes on, we begin to wonder how much it matters that he was an American agent if he was such an effective Nazi.

Let’s face it. Nazi is our standard if evil in the US. We call people of opposing political beliefs Nazis, or fascists, or we paint that stupid iconic Hitler ‘stache across the posters of their politicians (Yes, this happened to Bush as well).

The point is, Vonnegut brilliantly humanizes an effective Nazi, a Soviet spy, a German traitor, Eichmann, a group of white supremacists, etc. In fact, the most villainous man in the book is an American ex-soldier who is hell bent on beating the main character to a pulp. He’s of a single mind, and that is of violence, whereas, these other characters are idealistic, but stupid or misled.

I love a good villain, and this book is full of them. Vonnegut’s humor and wit disarm the reader and force him to reconsider what we so often call “pure evil.”

Buy this book. You can get it on Amazon for less than four bucks right now. You’ll love it and you’ll thank me later.

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On Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story

I ran across this today, and I am a sucker for this sort of advice. It’s so interesting to be able to boil down a writing philosophy into bullet points.

  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 hell 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.

So, I asked myself how I apply this advice in my writing. Pretty much, I don’t really. I mean, I try not to waste the reader’s time, and I try to make a character the reader can root for (which is the reason I hate Catcher in the Rye … phony), but I haven’t really applied the rest.

The two things that really struck me were the ideas of being a sadist and writing to just one person. These are simple, but brilliant. I had never thought about writing to one person. Who is that person? Is it an imagined person, or is it someone who can check it over and approve or disapprove? I should try this. One of my weaknesses is that I do not emotionally move readers enough … and often, I don’t really even seek to. I like intellectual argument, but it has to be some of both, I think. Sadist. I’m a bad sadist, but I need to be better. This is so true. I need to be better at putting characters through hell and I need to work on incorporating villains into my pieces. I’ve always loved a good villain, but I’ve yet to write one. Oh Vonnegut, you are missed. Your ability to mix humor (something I’m not good at in my fiction) and darkness is unparalleled in literature. I think I’m going to try your eight points as a writing exercise. We’ll see how this works out.
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Story Shapes

So, my writer friends and I found this fantastic video where Kurt Vonnegut describes story shapes. Have a watch:

This got us all to thinking … What is my story shape? For me, I found that my fiction (at least of late) usually started low, then went high, and dipped low again.

I’m not sure what that says about me. Pessimist maybe? It’s interesting, I don’t think about my plots that way, but when we laid out our stories, that’s how the shape worked out.

One writer in our group had stories that just sort of flat-lined. They were interesting, but they didn’t really seem to go anywhere for the main character. Very interesting. I wondered about this.

Either way, it’s an interesting way to think about stories. I think I need to keep the main character’s misery more in mind as I write … I sort of like the idea of playing the sadistic narrator.

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