For my buddy Brandon, who starts teaching his first creative writing class today, an excerpt of an old NYTimes article from 1971:
The class began in a surprising way. Vonnegut remarked that last time they had been talking about form, and he walked to the blackboard and drew there a question mark, an exclamation point and a period. He said these bits of punctuation were the outline of a three-act story.
One of my favorite writers who drew on another writer who drew:
TROUT: You ever meet anybody who was really smart?
KV: Only one: Saul Steinberg, the graphic artist who’s dead now. Everybody I know is dead now, present company excepted. I could ask Saul anything, and six seconds would pass, and then he would give me a perfect answer. He growled a perfect answer. He was born in Rumania, and, according to him, he was born into a house where “the geese peeked in the windows.”
TROUT: Like what kind of questions?
KV: I said, “Saul, what should I think about Picasso?” Six seconds went by, and then he growled, “God put him on Earth to show us what it’s like to be really rich.” I said, “Saul, I’m a novelist, and many of my friends are novelists, but I can’t help feeling that some of them are in a very different business from mine, even though I like their books a lot. What would make me feel that way?” Six seconds went by, and then he growled, “It is very simple: There are two kinds of artists, and one is not superior to the other. But one kind responds to the history of his or her art so far, and the other responds to life itself.”
I said, “Saul, are you gifted?” Six seconds went by, and then he growled, “No. But what we respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.’
I think it’s no coincidence that I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick on the plane ride to and from Texas. Meg and I were busy all week planting the seeds for a new extended family in Austin, and more or less, that’s what the book is about — extended families as a cure for loneliness. It might be one of Vonnegut’s key philosophies, and Vonnegut would recycle it over and over again in later speeches, books, and conversation. This bit is from the prologue, which is probably better than the rest of the pages of the book combined. Yes, get Slapstick, if only for the prologue:
[H]uman beings need all the relatives they can get–as possible donors or receivers not necessarily of love, but of common decency.
. . .
When we were children in Indianapolis, Indiana, it appeared that we would always have an extended family of genuine relatives there. Our parents and grandparents, after all, had grown up there with shoals of siblings and cousins and uncles and aunts. Yes, and their relatives were all cultivated and gentle and prosperous, and spoke German and English gracefully.
. . .
They were all religious skeptics, by the way.
. . .
They might roam the wide world over when they were young, and often have wonderful adventures. But they were all told sooner or later that it was time for them to come home in Indianapolis, and to settle down. They invariably obeyed–because they had so many relatives there.
There was good things to inherit, too, of course–sane businesses, comfortable homes and faithful servants, growing mountains of china and crystal and silverware, reputations for honest dealing, cottages on Lake Maxinkuckee, along whose eastern shore my family once owned a village of summer homes.
. . .
But the delight the family took in itself was permanently crippled, I think, by the sudden American hatred for all things German which unsheathed itself when this country entered the First World War, five years before I was born.
Children in our family were no longer taught German. Neither were they encouraged to admire German music or literature or art or science. My brother and sister and I were raised as though Germany were as foreign to us as Paraguay.
We were deprived of Europe, except for what we might learn of it at school.
We lost thousands of years in a very short time–and then tens of thousands of American dollars after that, and the summer cottages and so on.
And our family became a lot less interesting, especially to itself.
So–by the time the Great Depression and a Second World War were over, it was easy for my brother and my sister and me to wander away from Indianapolis.
And, of all the relatives we left behind, not one could think of a reason why we should come home again.
We didn’t belong anywhere in particular any more. We were interchangeable parts in the American machine.
This beautiful little book came out sometime around when Meg and I got married. It is a document of Anders Nilsen’s relationship with his fiance, Cheryl Weaver, who died of hodgkins lymphoma in 2005. It reads somewhat like a heartbreaking, full-color issue of FOUND magazine dedicated to a couple: there are scanned postcards, hand-written letters on notebook paper, ticket stubs, photographs, and of course, Nilsen’s wonderful comics.
For obvious (or not so obvious?) reasons, I stayed far away from this book until a good time had passed since our wedding. (It was difficult — until now, I’ve read every work of Nilsen’s as soon as I could get my hands on it. He is one of my favorites.) About a month ago, I read THE END, which is actually something of a sequel to DON’T GO. DON’T GO finally came in the mail today (yes, it arrived with the steaks), and I read it tonight in one sitting.
What to say about this book? What you say about all great books: as little as possible.
Buy it. Read it. It does what great art does best: makes you stop and look around. Makes you want to keep on living.
All day I had been thinking about Kurt Vonnegut, and after reading this book, I thought of a little something he asked of all of us: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'”
Kurt Vonnegut’s master’s thesis in anthropology was rejected by the University of Chicago. “It was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun,” Vonnegut writes. “One must not be too playful.” This excerpt from PALM SUNDAY, is the gist of his argument:
Anyone can graph a simple story if he or she will crucify it, so to speak, on the intersecting axes I here depict:
“G” stands for good fortune. “I” stands for ill fortune. “B” stands for the beginning of a story. “E” stands for its end.
A much beloved story in our society is about a person who is leading a bearable life, who experiences misfortune, who overcomes misfortune, and who is happier afterward for having demonstrated resourcefulness and strength. As a graph, that story looks like this:
Another story of which Americans never seem to tire is about a person who becomes happier upon finding something he or she likes a lot. The person loses whatever it is, and then gets it back forever. As a graph, it looks like this:
An American Indian creation myth, in which a god of some sort gives the people the sun and then the moon and then the bow and arrow and then the corn and so on, is essentially a staircase, a tale of accumulation:
Almost all creation myths are staircases like that. Our own creation myth, taken from the Old Testament, is unique, so far as I could discover, in looking like this:
The sudden drop in fortune, of course, is the ejection of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which an already hopelessly unhappy man turns into a cockroach, looks like this:
Have a look [at “Cinderella”]:
The steps you see, are all the presents the fairy godmother gave to Cinderella….The sudden drop is the stroke of midnight at the ball….But then the prince finds her and marries her, and she is infinitely happy ever after. She gets all the stuff back, and then some. A lot of people think the story is trash, and, on graph paper, it certainly looks like trash.
But then I said to myself, Wait a minute–those steps at the beginning look like the creation myth of virtually every society on earth. And then I saw that the stroke of midnight looked exactly like the unique creation myth in the Old Testament. And then I saw that the rise to bliss at the end was identical with the expectation of redemption as expressed in primitive Christianity.
The tales were identical.
UPDATE: Vonnegut goes over this again in A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY, which I’m currently listening to on audiotape (so no diagrams…but never fear: Gerry over at Backwards City has posted the chalkboard graph of “The Metamorphosis.”)