12 April 2007

Good Bye Blue Wednesday, or How I Came to Mark the Passing of Kurt Vonnegut

Tonight, I had planned on writing a ramble about the lack of governmental subsidized lawn care. When opening up my home page, I was confronted with some sad news. Seventeen minutes before I opened my home page, AP reported that Kurt Vonnegut had died. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the life and works of Vonnegut, the AP article can be found here.

I was first introduced to Vonnegut in high school. Around the 10th grade we were required to read Harrison Bergeron in English class. I thought it strange, even then, that a public school would require students to read something so politically incorrect. I’m convinced that the Metro Nashville School Board was duped into buying a text book with this short story in it. Some publishing house agent must have given away a few golf trips to Florida to sneak it in the curriculum.

Being an inquisitive youth, I ask my English teacher about Vonnegut. After getting the basic bio and literature lesson, she suggested that I would probably like Cat's Cradle . During lunch that day, I went to the school library to check out a copy. I was astounded to find that our library did not carry a single copy of Vonnegut’s works. Our librarian told me that there was some “inappropriate material for young readers” in his books and they were not included in her collection. The conundrum of having an author as required reading for a course and not carrying his works in the school library would have appealed to Vonnegut’s sense of the absurd.

Luckily, a used bookstore owners whose primary trade in selling the soft core porn of Harlequin Romances has fewer scruples. I snapped up a copy of Breakfast of Champions and Welcome to the Monkey House for less than a buck that very afternoon. After reading the novel and the collection of short stories, something opened in my mind. The beautifully bizarre Vonnegut universe of heartache, synchronicity, bad science fiction writers, mental defects, how aliens perceive double entendres, social commentary, and the human sphincter somehow fit into an angst riddled teenager’s world. I don’t think I’ve been the same since.

For those of you who have read Vonnegut and my blog can attest to that. In Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction,, Vonnegut stated that there are eight rules for writing that have always helped me write anything.

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Thanks Kurt. You whispered cosmic truths to me at just the right age. Your works came to me before I was too addled by what “normal” people taught me to infect my entire life. You’ll be missed. So it goes. Maybe Government subsidized lawn service doesn’t sound so off the mark after all….


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