I saw this post about Kurt Vonnegut on Instagram today, Kurt Vonnegut was not only a remarkable, one off writer, but he was also a quirky, funny, irrepressible human being. If you’ve never seen his YouTube video on story shapes, please go here and enjoy yourself.
Here is the post:
In 2006, a high school English teacher asked students to write to a famous author and ask for advice. Kurt Vonnegut was the only one to respond.
His reply was a doozy:
“Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Conglusta:
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 anymore 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 and 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 of 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 girlfriend 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!
I can’t remember anyone giving this kind of advice to me when I was in high school. Sure, I got kudos on my ability to play the violin, but no one said do it because it will reward your soul and make you a better human being. There was always instead a hint that, whew, I would have a way to make a living and be useful to society.
But I have seen it as an adult, after I went searching for it.
For example, self-improvement guru Tony Robbins has suggested that if you’re not doing something right now that scares the absolute bejesus out of you, you’re not doing life correctly or optimally. I interpret the something he refers to as anything creative, since that is usually enough to frighten the daylights out of any adult. I took one of his courses, and realized there was so much more to experiencing my life than I had been led to believe. So then, I read Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle’s books on spirituality (which is really just another word for getting to know your creative self), and Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic”, a must for living a creative life courageously.
After all that, I realized something fairly simple and profound: the reason we are all here experiencing this weird thing called life, is to express ourselves through creativity. And, following Mr. Vonnegut’s infinite wisdom, no one else has to know about it. You don’t have to make millions on it, you simply have to get to know the complex and astonishing creature you are, and the jaw dropping opportunity we have on this planet to do that. That should be enough. But it often isn’t, for a lot of people.
My parents raised me to have certain vague expectations of my life. I would learn a skill (music was always my choice), and most likely grow up, marry and have children. My father was a businessman who thought about life in a very traditional way, and Mom was a housewife first, then became a first grade teacher later on when I was a teenager. They never stood in my way, but they also didn’t go out of their way to seek out challenging creative opportunities, something I now realize is, ideally, a vital part of growing up. For them to suggest or support that I do something that scared me, or made me uncomfortable, was (understandably) not in their parental repertoire.
I challenge you to think of something today that you can do that represents the part of you that’s trying to express something. It could be a poem, a doodle, a dance, or as Mr. Vonnegut says, playing with your food. Make it a point to take at least two minutes out every day to express yourself, to yourself. If you’re so moved, show it to someone, or don’t – that part doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t have to live on your social media account to be important or worthy. Just get it out of you, and out there. After that, think about what you just learned about yourself and see if there’s any more where that came from.
Maybe there won’t be any more, maybe that’s it. If so, move on to the next lesson about who you are, and the stuff you make that tells that story.