Fumbling to Find Vonnegut’s Advice to A Young Writer

Vonnegut Quote from Kurt Vonnegut LettersA week after finishing Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, I wanted to revisit Vonnegut’s correspondence with an aspiring writer, but I could only remember a smattering of the words: “if you want to write fiction,” “experiences,” and “television.” I couldn’t recall the name of the recipient, the page number in the book, or even the decade. I reasoned that it had to be in the latter half of the book, at some point after 1970, because Vonnegut’s literary reputation had soared by then, putting him in the position to give the kind of advice contained in this letter.

If I’d had the ebook, which is priced at $17.99 on Amazon right now, I could have used the search function, but I had only the hardcover, which costs $1.67 more than the ebook for the privilege of papercuts and the possibility that it could grace my bookshelf for some period of time longer than my Kindle will survive.

So, I turned to the “search function” in the way back of the book, the index, where I found a long list of subjects from “Abbadusky, Susan” to “Zinneman, Fred.” Unfortunately, without the name of the recipient, I couldn’t find the letter I wanted, at least not fast enough.

It was time for Plan B: skimming each piece of correspondence from February 28, 1970 until February 6, 2007, the date of the last letter in the book. I found the advice on page 368 in the letter Vonnegut penned to Alex Maslansky on May 18, 1996:

If you want to write fiction, then you must be patient, for you need experiences, and those take time to accumulate. Unfortunately, television offers the illusion of experiences writers used to come by the hard way, in courtrooms, on ships, in hospitals, whatever. Please don’t rely on those, unless you want to be popular.

I say go for truths, very personal ones, not likely to be learned from TV sets.

I can only imagine how different Slaughterhouse-Five would have been had Vonnegut watched a documentary or a drama about the firebombing of Dresden on TV instead of having lived it as a prisoner of war.

Today, in addition to television, we have the Internet, which also “offers the illusion of experiences writers used to come by the hard way.” I can “explore places around the world,” familiarize myself with courtroom procedures, or learn the symptoms of illnesses without traveling, getting arrested, or getting sick.  I could even have found the 1996 Vonnegut letter I had wanted in the first place had I thought to Google it.

Research is important, and reputable sources on the Internet are wonderful tools, but there is no substitute for actual experience, the personal perspective an author brings to her work that makes it unique. As a reader, I often find myself wondering about the author’s connection to the themes in her book, particularly if a novel misses the nuances of issues with which I’m familiar. It’s disappointing to see potentially good writers writing the wrong books.


  1. I definitely agree – there’s no substitute for experience. I was told if you can’t experience something for yourself, the second best thing is to just try to imagine it. Television can’t really give you the emotional depth, but if you can put yourself in that setting/situation/etc. and really picture everything in your mind, you might be able to come close to the experience. Not sure how true this is, but I hope so – there are things I write about that I doubt I’ll ever get a chance to experience firsthand.

  2. Experience teaches you things it’s impossible to see or read about, often giving you invaluable “special” knowledge. By all means, writers should “do” as often as possible.

  3. As always AMB your post has me thinking. On the one hand I see clearly that some of the greats (let’s say Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Hardy, Greene, the Brontes, Hemingway) draw heavily on personal experience. But Orwell, Asimov, Golding, Swift, Defoe clearly stepped outside into areas unknown to them personally.
    I had a *gulp* moment at your final paragraph as my present project is as far outside my personal experience as it’s possible to be. Will I be able to write convincingly? Hopefully it will release creativity at least.

    1. It sounds like your new project is quite a challenge, which can be a good thing. I’ll be interested to see what you do with it!

  4. Hi! I’ve been following your blog for a while and really enjoy the intelligence and depth of your posts. I can’t say that this nomination for a Liebster Award is very erudite, but it is kind of fun. I apologize if you’ve been nominated before-I’m kind of new at this and still trying to decipher the rules. Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoy your blog. Cheers and best wishes for a fun spring weekend!

  5. GREAT GREAT POST! This is the reason why I write my blog and at times write about my own experiences. I enjoy fun and light posts as I do share about vacations I have taken etc, but the meat of my blog is about experiences I feel strong about and are worthy to be understood by a world that may only know about autism or brain tumors from TV…But to come face to face through our words on a blog makes it real. It is cool to be able to revisit that blog and see what else is going on in that person’s life. I am not saying everyone writes this personal as I have, but this is one reason I like to blog.

  6. This is so true. Writing books based on personal experience just has a different “truth” to it that adds a very different, very geniune feel from other books. It connects you more to the writer, because you can sense how vulnerable of a position the writer is putting themselves in by writing about these experiences (even if the form it appears in is labeled as “fiction”). You can always count on Vonnegut to give you the truth, even when writing letters.

  7. Great quote and post! I agree that the personal perspective of an author makes each work unique. Sometimes I think that some authors try too hard to find an “important” topic and miss all the nuances that would make a wonderful story that are right before their eyes.

    1. Thank you! I can understand why some writers would bypass stories that are too personal, particularly if their experience was traumatic, but I would hope that they would draw on those feelings as they evaluate new fictional situations.

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