Kurt Vonnegut at the Writers Workshop
I was a student of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and we remained in touch from those years until his death. Vonnegut was not famous, when he taught there. He’d published four novels; Cat's Cradle had been published two years before but had not yet become a contemporary classic. He was working on Slaughterhouse Five. He was no more or less awesome than other writers teaching at the workshop – Vance Bourjaily, Nelson Algren, Jose Donoso, William Price Fox, Eugene Garber, and Richard Yates. But he was my favorite.
What was Kurt like in class as a teacher?
He was passionate, indignant. He wheezed with laughter. He laughed at his own jokes. He was practical. He was shy. He amused himself, during workshops, by doodling. He was kind. He was entertaining. He was smart.
The first time I saw him (and I didn’t know who he was, hadn’t read his novels), he struck my funny bone. He stood in front of a huge lecture hall with all the other writers. He was tall, with curving shoulders (a man shaped like a banana, as he once described himself), and he was smoking a cigarette in a long black cigarette holder, tilting his head and exhaling smoke, with a clear awareness of the absurdity and affectedness of it: in other words, he had – as Oscar Wilde said is the first duty in life – assumed a pose.
He was, I learned later, seriously trying to reduce the effects of smoking by using the cigarette holder. The nicotine habit would plague him all his life. The pose would hold too.
He told us in workshop classes, “You’re in the entertainment business.” He impressed this upon us over and over again. Therefore, he said, “Your first job is to hook the reader. Your second is to keep your reader reading.”
Curiosity about the smallest thing could keep the reader engaged, he said. He cited a story he'd read in which the main character has a worrisome loose tooth. The suspense of what was going to happen to that tooth was enough to keep him turning pages.
He admitted Cat’s Cradle was designed by this principle. The chapters were structured as jokes. They were brief. They were intended to sustain even the shortest attention span.
Once in a workshop, David Milch, future creator of “Hill Street Blues” and “Deadwood,” presented a story that ridiculed businessmen. This was the sixties when the generation gap and “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was primetime, as well as blame and rage at the military/industrial complex, corporations, and the men who ran them. David Milch was fresh out of Yale, far from 30, one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met, and very cool. Vonnegut was cool. It was cool, then, to scoff at and disdainbusinessmen.
But Kurt got furious. He said, “Those men are my peers. I worked with men like them.” They supported families, he went on to say, they were hard-working, they deserved respect.
Once he took umbrage at someone who used the phrase “we writers.” It took more than being admitted into the Writer’s Workshop to gain legitimate passage into calling yourself a writer, he let us know.
Another time he flared up at a story of mine. The young nurse’s aide helped an old man wash his back. It angered Kurt that she took the washrag from the man to wash his back herself; he said that that “help” took away the old man’s sense of independence and competence.
I had never thought about what helping someone might do to one’s sense of competence. I was a girl, had been taught to help, grew up with Christian ideas about helping. What a revelation.
That story was my very first; I had gotten into the workshop on its merit.
My undergraduate creative writing teacher had suggested I add that bit. I was upset, hurt. Yet I didn’t feel I could protest aloud that my first teacher had suggested I add that. Because in that moment I understood that even professional writers disagree, that there is no definitive opinion, and most important, that finally, one is responsible for one’s own story.
At the end of the class, Kurt came quickly over to me and said something kind. I think he said he hoped he hadn’t hurt my feelings. I was grateful for that. In so doing, he made a distinction between my story and me. That distinction would be another important, continuing lesson that Kurt was the first to teach me.
Once in class we were discussing war and pacifism. The dialogue focused on the very real issue at that time of whether, if drafted, one should go to Viet Nam or become a conscientious objector. Then the talk went beyond our particular war to the question of whether war was ever morally defensible.
There were several guys in the workshop, such as Andre Dubus II, who had already been in the service. Everyone knew Kurt Vonnegut’s experiences in World War II of being captured by the Germans and fire-bombed by the Americans. The draft was still in place, and though most students had deferments, it was a real threat. Kurt asserted he was a pacifist, didn’t believe in war, wouldn’t go if called, wouldn’t suggest anyone go.
But one student pressed him further. "Let's get down to the nitty gritty," the student said, suggesting we move the conversation off war, which muddied the moral waters by involving government, social and family pressure, and consequences. He posited a situation of basic survival. “Let's say there are two survivors on a raft. Hardly any food or water. The first man's position is, we'll double our supplies and multiply our chances if there were only one of us. So he says to the other man, it's either you or me. What would you do if you were the second man?"
"Drown myself," Kurt said.
Whether he would or not, in that situation, is another story. I remarked once how awful it must have been to go to war so young. He told me, under his breath, “Oh no. Marching in a smart uniform carrying your rifle. Made you feel quite powerful.“ He knew the appeal. He didn’t approve. He hated it. In himself and human kind.
My friend and fellow student, South African writer Stephen Gray, told me a story Kurt told him about going to Vance Bourjaily’s farm to go hunting with the other writers teaching at the workshop (all men, as were most the students). Kurt went along. But when he was supposed to shoot, he aimed off target.
In a Form of Fiction class (literature classes geared towards examining fiction from a writer's perspective, comprised of about eighty students), Kurt taught a Chekhov story. I can’t remember the name of it. I didn’t quite understand the point, since nothing much happened. An adolescent girl is in love with this boy and that boy and another; she points at a little dog, as I recall, or maybe something else, and laughs. That’s all. There’s no conflict, no dramatic turning point or change. Kurt pointed out that she has no words for the sheer joy of being young, ripe with life, her own juiciness, and the promise of romance. Her inarticulate feelings spill into laughter at something innocuous. That’s what happened in the story. His absolute delight in that girl’s joy of feeling herself so alive was so encouraging of delight. Kurt’s enchantment taught me that such moments are nothing to sneeze at. They’re worth a story.
His best writer friend there was Jose Donoso, a Chilean aristocrat, a very different writer than Kurt, and Kurt’s wife Jane was fond of Jose’s wife, Maria Pilar Donoso. Kurt described to us Maria Pilar’s description of riding down the Nile so vividly and with such pleasure that it was as though he himself had once been a young virginal woman gliding down that ancient river.
In that class, among Kurt’s several assignments, was one to write a four-page essay on “the mechanical and spiritual limitations…imposed by the short story as compared with the novel.” Though a “grotesque and stupid thing to do,” he wrote, another was to describe in less than twenty-five words the plot of four books we’d read, then discuss “the usefulness or uselessness of plots” to the writer and reader.
He composed the assignment playfully, in letter form, beginning “Dear Gus.” I wrote my paper likewise, from the point of view of a smart but airhead-sounding woman writing letters to her friend about the war ravaging her town between those favoring the short story and those on the side of novelists; her second letter dissected plots, and so on. “Full of life, Suzanne, and that’s all I ever ask of anyone.” He scrawled a fat A.
Looking at his assignments now, I see that is what he asked. They were designed to teach something much more than whatever I thought then he was teaching about writing. He was teaching us to do our own thinking, to find out who we were, what we loved, abhorred, what set off our tripwires, what tripped up our hearts.
Kurt's frame of reference was not literary. He often made self-deprecating remarks about his lack of a college degree and knowledge of English literature. Once in a Form of Fiction class a student made an allusion to the poet Keats. Kurt blinked and asked, “Who’s Keats?” He assumed Keats was someone we knew. Another student clarified the reference. Kurt fled the classroom in mock embarrassment, then stomped back amidst our uproarious laughter.
He tried out on us, in a workshop, a central joke in Slaughterhouse Five. He said the crucifixion story didn’t teach compassion. What the story really illustrated was that it was okay to murder somebody: Just be sure he’s not well connected. He laughed until he wheezed, when he told us. We laughed too. In a revised more moral story, he said, a nobody would be crucified. Just before he died, God would adopt him. That story would teach that any nobody could be the Son of God. Our response let him know we thought that idea was superb.
Kurt had six children (including three orphaned nephews the Vonneguts raised) and a wife to support. He was a survivor. He was the only one of all the instructors in the workshop to address the question in a formal way of how we MFA candidates were going to support ourselves after we left the cocoon of the University. At that time, teaching jobs were plentiful, but MFA degrees were rare. He himself had had a variety of full-time jobs until his writing took off sufficiently to do it full-time. He suggested that the workshop instructors hold a special meeting with students to discuss that practicality.
I can’t remember much about what was said at that meeting. I recall he encouraged us to use our writing skills in getting jobs – to work in advertising or public relations or something that would provide a living and whet our pencils.
He told us to make use of the connections we’d made. The most important impact of it on me was that he brought the subject up as a substantial enough issue to gather everyone together for a discussion about it, just as we were about to march out into the world and just as I was realizing, with some bit of alarm, that being a writer and supporting yourself at the same time was going to be quite something to pull off.
Once at a party, after I had turned in a story that he didn’t like much (it was a little mean to the main character), I was telling him that he’d like the next one. He smiled at me, drink in hand, and said, “You’re a pretty girl, Suzanne, you can get married anyway.” I was dumbfounded. What did that have to do with my burning desire to write? I was open-mouthed. He would never have said that to a man. I understood he was flirting, thought he was giving me a compliment. That made it worse. Ten years later at another party in New York, after the feminist movement, I reminded him what he’d said and told him what that had meant to me. He said, “Did I say that?” In an attempt to defend himself, he said, “Well, that is an avenue open to women.” Then he apologized. At this great distance of time, I see that his response was a practical one, in his view. Writing for him was tied up with making a living.
Kurt had worked in public relations for General Electric. He’d had a Saab dealership. He knew about marketing and promotion. He was not above stretching the truth for advantage, for himself or others. He wrote a recommendation for me when I graduated and applied for teaching jobs. Someone on the faculty where I did get my first teaching job divulged it: “She’s the best writer in the Workshop.”
I laughed. Well, sure, I was a good writer. But my classmates included John Irving, Gail Godwin, John Casey, Ian McMillan, Andre Dubus, John Edgar Wideman. The list could go on. Most were older than I, more experienced writers, graduates of better educational institutions including Ivys, and more confident. Kurt knew very well that the world was a tough nut.
He remained a supportive figure for several of us from the workshop. When I moved to New York, not long after he did in the 70’s, Kurt urged me to phone Barry
Kaplan, my classmate and his graduate assistant at Iowa, provoking what has become a lifelong friendship. He attended Barry’s off-Broadway plays, and always championed his work. At lunch in 2006, Kurt told me that John Irving had sent him his last manuscript. “It’s about 800 pages!” he exclaimed. I once sent him a story from the point of view of a homeless man, asking his advice about placing it, and he wrote back that no commercial magazine would publish it. But “At the same time, I’d rather slit my throat than tell you to write more commercially.“ Much later, in despair about my slow-going novel process, I sent a chapter and a note saying, “Don’t give up on me, Kurt,” and he answered, “Give up on you? Never even thought about it.”
When he taught James Joyce’s story, “Eveline,” he said that this was his favorite line: “She was tired.”
He was tired, too, his last few years.
Not that tired, though.
Two months before his fatal accident at age 84, actress/sexpot Anna Nicole Smith’s overdose left her child orphaned. Four men claimed paternity. Kurt piped up.
Actually, he said, he was the father of her child.
On “The Daily Show” in 2005, Kurt said that the planet’s immune system seemed to be trying to get rid of us and it was right to do so, because we were some of the most terrible animals on the planet. He himself teetered on the edge of giving up, had black holes of depression, smoked and drank too much, was contradictory, complex, and moody. Yet he wrote all his life in protest against human vileness, used his considerable wit and craft to point it out, and spent his heart in a humanist appeal to the greater angels of our nature.