In Pity the Reader: On Writing With Style, Suzanne McConnell collects the teachings of her former professor, Kurt Vonnegut, in a single volume. A student of Vonnegut’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1965 to 1967, during a time when the teacher was finishing his masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five, McConnell draws on firsthand knowledge and extensive research to guide the reader through nearly everything the famous author ever said or wrote about the art of writing.
The epigraph to the book is a quote from Iowa: “Write like a human being. Write like a writer,” Vonnegut said. With rare photographs and reproductions as well as a generous offering of the novelist’s aphorisms, short essays, articles, speeches, and interviews, Pity the Reader elucidates this imperative, offering insight into both craft and the human condition. In thirty-seven chapters, which range from the practicalities of “Making a Living” to the abstractions of “Diligence,” McConnell brings Vonnegut to life on the page, with his humor, candor, and intellect as incisive as ever. Below is an excerpt from the book, forthcoming from Seven Stories Press on November 5.
The Paris Review asked Vonnegut two fundamental questions for aspiring fiction writers:
Interviewer: Surely talent is required?
Vonnegut: ...I was a Saab dealer on Cape Cod for a while, and I enrolled in their mechanic’s school, and they threw me out of their mechanic’s school. No talent.
Vonnegut had failed enough in his life at all the things for which he hadn’t much talent to know in his bones that being blessed with a God-given knack for something is a prerequisite for success at it.
It just turned out that I could write better than a lot of other people. Each person has something he can do easily and can’t imagine why everybody else is having so much trouble doing it. In my case, it was writing. In my brother’s case, it was mathematics and physics. In my sister’s case, it was drawing and sculpting.
“He had an extra gear, language-wise,” Vonnegut’s son Mark says of his father. “At eighty-plus he was still doing the New York Times crossword puzzles quickly As soon as I told him the verb came last, he could translate my Latin homework at sight, without having ever taken Latin.”
Further in the Paris Review interview, Vonnegut calls writing a “trade.”
Vonnegut: Trade. Carpenters build houses. Storytellers use a reader’s leisure time in such a way that the reader will not feel that his time has been wasted. Mechanics fix automobiles.
Interviewer: Do you really think creative writing can be taught?
Vonnegut: About the same way golf can be taught. A pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing.
If you don’t have an athlete’s knack for that swing, you’re not going to be a pro. Kurt “didn’t really believe you could teach a person how to write if the ability wasn’t there to begin with.”
Talent is required. But it’s only one of the components for creating good fiction. And being possessed of less than superlative gifts doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue writing.
I was a mediocrity in the anthropology department of the University of Chicago after the Second World War. Triage was practiced there as it is practiced everywhere. There were those students who would surely be anthropologists, and the most winsome faculty members gave them intensive care. A second group of students...might become so-so anthropologists, but more probably, would use what they had learned about Homo sapiens to good advantage in some other field...
The third group, of which I was a member, might as well have been dead—or studying chemistry.
The anthropology student Vonnegut doesn’t belong in the third group. Placing himself in the third group makes for drama and an in-joke about his failure at chemistry. In truth, he turned out to be a solid member of the second group, those using “what they had learned...to good advantage in some other field.” Chemistry provoked his interest in science. Anthropology shaped his worldview, his writing—so where’s the failure?
What is “failure” anyhow? A different outcome than expected, in this case.
Again and again, these questions arise. “Can you really teach anyone how to write?” a New York Times editor asked Vonnegut, just as he was composing a piece for that very newspaper about that very subject. This suspicion is left over from a legend, Vonnegut says in the finished article,
from the old days, when male American writers acted like tough guys, like Humphrey Bogart, to prove that they, although they were sensitive and liked beauty, were far from being homosexual. The Legend: A tough guy, I forget which one, is asked to speak to a creative writing class. He says: “What in hell are you doing here? Go home and glue your butts to a chair, and write and write until your heads fall off!” Or words to that effect...
The Times guy who wondered if anybody could be taught how to write was taught how to write by editors. The tough guy who made students and their instructor feel like something the cat dragged in, possibly spitting on the floor after having done so, almost certainly, like me, handed in manuscripts to his publisher that were as much in need of repairs as what I got from students at the workshop.
My reply: “Listen, there were creative writing teachers long before there were creative writing courses, and they were called and continue to be called editors.”
The tough guy he’s referring to may well have been Nelson Algren, a fellow writer/teacher at the workshop. From up at the podium along with Bourjaily and Vonnegut in a Form of Fiction class, Algren scoffed bold-facedly at us students for coming to school to learn to write. I recognized that Algren was the real deal. But man, I wanted to ask him why he was up there, being paid by our tuitions and wasting his own time teaching us if it were so pointless, rather than skulking around the mean streets of Chicago, where he presumably had picked up the knack.
Vonnegut was not without poses, but pretending his writing emerged full-bodied from Zeus’s forehead was not one of them.
Neither did he confuse life experience with craft.
Asked in 1970 if he was “influenced by a particular writer or style,” Vonnegut answered:
No, although I do see myself as an “instructed” writer, and there aren’t many producing authors who would confess to such a thing. What I mean is: I went to a high school that put out a daily newspaper and, because I was writing for my peers and not for teachers, it was very important to me that they understand what I was saying. So the simplicity, and that’s not a bad word for it, of my writing was caused by the fact that my audience was composed of sophomores, juniors and seniors. In addition, the idea of an uncomplicated style was very much in the air back then—clarity, shorter sentences, strong verbs, a de-emphasis of adverbs and adjectives, that sort of thing. Because I believed in the merits of this type of prose, I was quite “teachable” and so I worked hard to achieve as pure a style as I could. When I got to Cornell my experiences on a daily paper...enabled me to become a big shot on Cornell’s Daily Sun. I suppose it was this consistent involvement with newspaper audiences that fashioned my style. Also, since I was a Chemistry major, I had very little instruction from the profoundly literary people.
...The people who were senior to me at the Sun were full of advice and, again, it had to do with clarity, economy, and so forth...The magazines were thriving then and the editors knew a good deal about story telling... And keep in mind that you had to do what they told you to do or you couldn’t sell them a story... So I was drilled from the start in basic journalistic techniques and, in a very real sense, my instructors were masters at their craft. I hope I’m making this clear: these editors were neither tyrannical nor contemptible. They were dedicated, knowledgeable professionals. My point, then, is that I was taught to write the way I do [italics mine].
What about storytelling, as differentiated from writing? Because writing prose is one thing, and writing a yarn is another. Vonnegut and his friend, the writer Sidney Offit, discussed that. Offit taught much longer than Vonnegut—at NYU, Hunter College, and the New School. “And,” Offit says, “I have to tell you: the gift for narrative, for storytelling, is rarer than the gift for poetic prose or elegant language—it isn’t even close.” He adds, “The students I have had over the years who could write stories were eventually published.”
Offit’s right. Many, many students write well. Not nearly as many have the hang of telling a story.
Students have been writing all their lives. But they have not been writing stories all their lives.
A creative writing course provides experienced editors for inspired amateurs.
Today, with the proliferation of writing programs, I might agree with Nelson Algren. There’s some backlash about the MFA-ing of writing. If you’ve some talent, passion, and a good story to tell, must you spend a fortune on an MFA program to hone your craft? Not necessarily.
“Talent” is excerpted from Pity the Reader: On Writing With Style by Kurt Vonnegut and Suzanne McConnell, published by Seven Stories Press on November 5, 2019.
Suzanne McConnell holds a BA in Sociology from the University of Arkansas and an MFA in Fiction Writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in such publications as The Huffington Post, Provincetown Arts, The Brooklyn Rail, The Water~Stone Review, Per Contra, The Hamilton Stone Review, The Saint Ann’s Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Calyx, Kalliope, Green Mountains Review, The Fiddlehead, Personal Fiction Writing, Earth’s Daughters, A Sense of Place, and Poets & Writers Magazine. She has been granted residencies at Ucross Foundation, Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, and Villa Montalvo Center for the Arts. She taught writing and literature at Hunter College for thirty years, was the Scholar/Facilitator for New Jersey’s Literature and Medicine programs at the University of Medicine and Dentistry and at the Department of Veteran Affairs for six, and has been an editor and writing coach for Greenline Publishing Consultants as well as free-lance. Since 2006 she has been Fiction Editor for the Bellevue Literary Review. Her stories have won First Prize in the New Ohio Review’s Fiction Contest, First Prize in Prime Number Magazine’s Flash Fiction Contest, and an excerpt from her novel, Fence of Earth, won Second Prize in So To Speak’s Fiction Contest and was a finalist for the James Fellowship for Novel in Progress. She grew up in San Diego, attending Grossmont High School and San Diego State College. She lives in New York City and Wellfleet, Massachusetts with her husband, a sculptor, Gary Kuehn.