Last week an old friend sent an interesting anecdote regarding his favorite writer, the late Kurt Vonnegut, who was born in 1922 and died in 2007.
Vonnegut, whose dark comic talent and urgent moral vision gained a delighted and well-deserved following among those of us who came of age in the '60s and '70s, served as an important counterweight to the seeming insanity of the era’s infamous Establishment.
In his classic novels “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Cat’s Cradle,” “Breakfast of Champions,” and “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” together with dozens of short stories and a handful of essays, he managed to puncture the pompous sense of self-importance that seemed to pervade the government of that time.
He accomplished this with a famously light touch and wry humor. The year before he died, a high school English teacher asked her students to write a famous author and ask for advice. Kurt Vonnegut was the only one to respond - and his response, which follows, strikes me as magnificent.
“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 or 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 girlfriends or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?
“Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. 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!”
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.
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