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Kurt Vonnegut & Getting to Work

Kurt Vonnegut grabs you. His books call out to you in a real voice. Slaughterhouse 5, his seminal novel, begins with the line, “All this happened, more or less.”  Immediately, you trust the voice and immediately you’re hooked.

But Vonnegut didn’t trip into his success or stumble into his style. He slaved over it. And, as Charles J. Shield’s new biography of Vonnegut, And So it Goes, shows us he paid a high price for it. In Vonnegut’s work ethic there’s a lesson for anyone who wants to improve their ability to chase down their dreams.

Vonnegut, born to a wealthy German-American family in Indianapolis, grew up knowing the value of hard work. His dad was a successful architect even though he had little love for the field and his uncle owned a hardware store that would rely on young Vonnegut’s retail talents during summer breaks.

When Vonnegut was old enough for college  he was shipped off to Cornell and told to learn science even though the field eluded his interests. He did poorly, but found happiness in writing columns of Cornell’s daily newspaper. His articles were filled with humor, wit, and a personality that was always opinionated, dissenting, and wry.

Vonnegut, however, was forced to drop out. His grades couldn’t cut it and he joined the war effort and enlisted in the Army as a private in 1942. He was captured in battle, starved, sent to a prison camp, and eventually shipped to Dresden to make nutritional syrup for pregnant mothers. While he was there he survived the Dresden firebombing and was charged with cleaning up its horrifying aftermath.

At the war’s end he returned to the states and joined the University of Chicago through the GI bill and started to study anthropology. However, his studies were cut short when his wife became pregnant and money became necessary.

Vonnegut started working as a beat reporter in Chicago and learned the effectiveness of short, quick, sentences, that were packed with information. He would later credit his newspaper days with the foundation of his literary style.

But beat reporting didn’t pay enough and couldn’t reliably put food on his family’s table so he moved to upstate New York and started working as a PR man for General Electric—on the recommendation of his brother.

While at GE Vonnegut quickly became disenchanted with his life and his job and resolved to become a writer. This is where most aspiring author’s stories stop—but Vonnegut persevered and spent most evenings in his hallway office banging away on his typewriter.

He wrote short stories exclusively and sent them to every big weekly in America. His tireless efforts went unrewarded for a nearly two years, but one of his stories was finally published after months of desperate writing.

The short story made him $700—the equivalent of two monthly paychecks from GE—and he promptly quit his job and resolved to become a full time writer. It was a risky and brave move. He was a relative unknown attempting to support his family on a career he was untested in.

Vonnegut rented an office and started writing furiously and had marginal successes over a number of years. His fortunes waned and waxed and his obsession with writing tried his young marriage—but he preserved and kept writing.

The rest of Vonnegut’s history is more public. His success, his divorce, and his popularity are common knowledge and his books are on most high school reading lists. What’s remarkable is Vonnegut’s early ability to bear down and work so tirelessly to achieve his goals.

Yet, Vonnegut wasn’t completely happy with his work and his success. In a telling anecdote told by Charles J. Shields—Vonnegut pulled down a musty dictionary from his library and asked Shields to look up, ‘Kerouac’. Shields did so and found an entry about Kerouac, his work, and his influence on the beat generation. Vonnegut then asked Shields to look up ‘Vonnegut’ for which there was no entry at all.

Vonnegut lamented.

Even till the end, Vonnegut tried to refine his work, his image, and his legacy. He was a great writer that did a great amount of work.



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