Today was my last day with the seniors, as they move on to spend the last few days of their high school careers practicing how to walk across a stage. I
Anaïs Nin, Henry and June
|Cashier:||Would you like to make a $1 donation to the ___________ charity?|
|Me:||The who? Do you have some sort of informational pamphlet about them before I decide to give them a dollar?|
|Cashier:||Umm... no. I'm sorry. [Jesus, I'm just trying to do my job, man.]|
|Me:||Okay. Not today then.|
|Cashier:||That'll be $15.78 then, please. [What a dick.]|
For many of us self-proclaimed writers, Vonnegut is one of the untouchables. He’s one of those quasi-deity like figures in American lit of whom we can only hope one day to have a sliver of his talent or uniqueness or wit.
Below is a term paper assignment from his teaching stint at the University of Iowa in the mid-1960s, right around the time that Cat’s Cradle became a best-seller, but before his career defining Slaughterhouse-Five was published.
Writers, editors, teachers, and students - take note. This is how education works at the University of Vonnegut:
Suzanne McConnell, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s students in his “Form of Fiction” course at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, saved this assignment, explaining that Vonnegut “wrote his course assignments in the form of letters, as a way of speaking personally to each member of the class.” The result is part assignment, part letter, part guide to writing and life.
FORM OF FICTION TERM PAPER ASSIGNMENT
November 30, 1965
This course began as Form and Theory of Fiction, became Form of Fiction, then Form and Texture of Fiction, then Surface Criticism, or How to Talk out of the Corner of Your Mouth Like a Real Tough Pro. It will probably be Animal Husbandry 108 by the time Black February rolls around. As was said to me years ago by a dear, dear friend, “Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here.”
As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all …”
I invite you to read the fifteen tales in Masters of the Modern Short Story (W. Havighurst, editor, 1955, Harcourt, Brace, $14.95 in paperback). Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, beginning each as though, only seven minutes before, you had swallowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as little children …”
Then reproduce on a single sheet of clean, white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers, and substituting for each number a grade from A to F. The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.
Proceed next to the hallucination that you are a minor but useful editor on a good literary magazine not connected with a university. Take three stories that please you most and three that please you least, six in all, and pretend that they have been offered for publication. Write a report on each to be submitted to a wise, respected, witty and world-weary superior.
Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.
Since there are eighty of you, and since I do not wish to go blind or kill somebody, about twenty pages from each of you should do neatly. Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.
Everybody on tv has a date, no matter what they’re like. Everybody. Fucking George Costanza has a date tonight. In real life, women wouldn’t even talk to him—short, shallow, self-obsessed, bald, paranoid, cheap, and on and on. Yet in TV Land he has date after date, with attractive women even. One even agreed to marry him.
In real life, the only way George Costanza is going to get woman one is if he was rich, and even then I have my doubts.
Don’t we need plot points in our lives? Come on, God or whoever is writing this sad, twisted sitcom of life, give us all dates so that we can bitch about them later at some cosmic coffee shop while a laugh-track of angels titters in the background.