A 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.