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Kurt Vonnegut (an oath on freedom, good news for Dad)

This story, the story of this letter, has moved me over and over as if I was reading it for the first time. I might as well have been. Lately it has been on my mind constantly. This is likely because I have recently entertained the possibility that I will never haunt a classroom again, at least not for money. After years in between blackboards and bored kids, mainly in southern Ontario high schools but for five recent campaigns in two northeastern Chinese universities, I may be done with all that. Hence, the Kurt Vonnegut ear-worm, my writing hero‘s blazing honesty on repeat. (How did you do it, Kurt? How did you do it? I’m reading his non-fiction again, trying to find clues, but I mainly get beaten about the ears by the impossibility of doing what he did.)

Humane, funny, tortured, conscious, brave.

Humane, funny, tortured, conscious, brave.

Yes. So here’s the set-up. KV’s story is in the second of his “autobiographical collages”, Fates Worse Than Death. (The first was Palm Sunday, if you’re keeping score.) (Desert island books, both. I can read these things again and again.) He’s writing about his saintly “unicorn” of a father, and the stoic resilience he showed as an artist enduring commercial vulgarity and disdain, and as a man surviving the madness of his wife. Kurt Junior ends this whimsically sad tribute to a man living in the wrong era by telling of his own early days as a writer, maybe one born at the right time — if being a World War II infantryman is good timing.

At age 27, Vonnegut was paying bills by writing advertising copy for General Electric by day, but his eccentric short stories were — amazing as this seems in hindsight — being accepted by the mass-market general-interest magazines of the day. The last word on his beauty-loving Daddy was this:

 ‘I am moved to add that Father tried to make good times revisitable…by gluing cheerful documents to sheets of masonite and protecting them with varnish. Thanks to Father, this mummified letter now hangs on the wall of my workroom:

“Dear Pop:

“I sold my first story to Collier’s. Received my check ($750 minus a 10% agent’s commission) yesterday noon. It now appears that two more of my works have a good chance of being sold in the near future.

“I think I’m on my way. I’ve deposited my first check in a savings account and, as and if I sell more, will continue to do so until I have the equivalent of one year’s pay at GE. Four more stories will do it nicely, with cash to spare (something we never had before). I will then quit this goddamn nightmare job, and never take another one so long as I live, so help me God.

“I’m happier than I’ve been for a good many years. Love, K”

‘It is no milestone in literature, but it looms like Stonehenge beside my own little footpath from birth to death. The date is October 28, 1949. Father glued a message from himself on the back of that piece of Masonite. It is a quotation from The Merchant of Venice in his own lovely hand:

           ‘An oath, an oath, I have an oath in Heaven:

           Shall I lay perjury on my soul?’

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) was an American novelist, the author of Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions but most famously of Slaughterhouse 5. I mourned his passing before he ever died, and wrote about it when he finally did. I have never thought of teaching as “this goddamn nightmare job”. (Or maybe this is a polite lie. Maybe I sometimes did and never allowed myself to verbalize it. Maybe this is why this letter seizes and chokes me so. Or maybe I’m just being romantic.) Now that my decades-long “day job” might be done, I fantasize about following writerly footsteps. I can’t be a Vonnegut, but I wonder what I can achieve with some fraction of his industry and courage.

Also, a discouraging statistic: I am not 27.

Comments (5)

  1. Sherri Yazdani

    Mr. Michael sounds like a wise man. I like his point.

    For years I avoided the career I originally set out for because I was afraid I wasn’t “good enough”. Perhaps that’s true – it isn’t ridiculously out of the question – but now I have decided that I must answer that question that has plagued me all these years. I may still pass along my own little footpath from birth to death without the success I once dreamed of, but at least now I will know whether the obstacle was my lack of ability/drive, or my own self-doubt.

    I’m not sure I have ever done anything this frightening, and I look forward to having company on the journey 🙂

    • Michael Freeman

      Now that you have found your “own little footpath”, trust. The concept of “good enough” probably has changed the direction of many a good person’s path. I am haunted by self-doubt. I hope that your path takes you to new and wonderful places. When you pause, be kind to the stranger on your left, and let us know of your travels.

      Me, wise? I thank you. Road-weary and trial-taught.

  2. Michael Freeman

    “I can’t be a Vonnegut, but I wonder what I can achieve with some fraction of his industry and courage.

    “Also, a discouraging statistic: I am not 27.”

    “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right!” somebody said. Who among us can be a Vonnegut? No one, now. He is dead. And he was, and remains, the only one.

    Do not count your talents short. Do not begin by placing yourself directly in the way of the eight ball. And do not try to be that which you have no chance of ever being.

    I’d like to be 14 again for a do-over, but unfortunately that ship has sailed. I wish I was as talented as a Ken Dryden, a Robin Williams, or a Hank Williams Sr., but I am not. Finding my own path has been tremendously difficult for me. Am I a good teacher to be respected instead of loathed? Am I a skilled wood carver or wood-burning artist, or just a might-have-been? Am I a writer with any marketable skill, as a few have told me I may be?

    One of my biggest fears is that I will not live up to my own expectations. And that cripples me. Do not be crippled by the vast wasteland of doubt and caution that lies between your ears. Remember only that writers write because they need to; they must. Only then will marketing yourself bring you the satisfaction you seek.

    • Ya done tole da truth, perfesser. Wise words.

      It’s a battle. That “vast wasteland of doubt and caution that lies between your ears” — ouch! and wow! — is a long trek, and a hard one. I mentioned doubts of mine. You answered. Hard. Thanks.

      • Michael Freeman

        It’s funny: although you interpret that I was instructing you, I may have been chastising myself. My words are never intended to injure, but to ponder. Nirvana.

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