Creative and Memoir Writing February 6, 2023

With Carol Brennan King

There’s no teacher better than the teacher who has learned his or her lessons the hard way, by experience, like Kurt Vonnegut. I did a little research and found this site: listing Vonnegut’s 52 books in order. If I have aroused your curiosity about Vonnegut’s work, you can find plot descriptions, book covers, genres, pseudonyms, and awards there if you would like to know more about him.

BUT, most of us don’t start out writing books. We learn, practice, and earn our writing chops by writing short stories. In class today, we talked about some of Vonnegut’s advice to short story writers.

  1. As we have discussed in class, you have to write so that your audience wants more. Vonnegut puts it this way: “Use the time of a total stranger (your reader) in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”

That means that before you say your work is done, you must make an effort to read it through the eyes of a stranger. Read it as though you have never read anything by this author, nor do you know or care about the author. You are reading to decide if you want to read anything more by him or her.

2. Next, you must give the reader at least one character to root for. Why read the work if nobody in the story or what happens to them matters at all to you?

3. This next bit of advice is important so read it through thoughtfully: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Think about this: if you know someone wants something, a part of your brain is going to read to find out if they ever got it.

The desires of your characters pull you along, especially if you see what happens in relation to those desires early on. Are they always met? What happens when they are met and what happens when they are not? Do you see how powerful this is?

4. EVERY sentence must do two things: reveal character OR advance the story.

Think about that. For example, the scene opens with a retired businessman reading a book in the living room. He hears a knock on the door. What does he do?

a. Lay the book on the arm of the chair and answer the door?

b. Throw the book down and hurry to the door?

c. Sit very still and turn the light off quickly. Then inch his way through the room to go out the back door.

Do you see how powerful that scene could be? What does it tell you?

5. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters might be, make awful things happen to them. Then watch how they react to these things to see what it make them of.

Mrs. Jones, looking like everyone’s favorite grandma, was the kind of neighbor everyone wanted. She welcomed every new family in the neighborhood with a local newspaper, a hand-lettered note with recommendations for the bank, drug store, family doctor, the closest grocery store, and the relevant phone numbers. Most everyone up and down the street had one of Mrs. Jones’s lists on their refrigerator.

She also brought along with the list a quart of milk, or if the family had looked larger, two quarts of milk, and a plate of cookies. She never overstayed her welcome because she knew her new neighbors had lots to do.

That was Saturday. Most people that Mrs. Jones knew moved on Saturdays, so she baked most Fridays. But Sunday morning, her new neighbors, the nine-year-old twin boys she had met the night before, got up early eager to explore. They were the first to see her sprawled out on the driveway separating the two homes, her body on the driveway, her head and one arm, as if reaching out, in the grass.

What do you think is going to happen now? Will she wake up or come around? What will the kids do? And who would harm the little old lady?

Do you see what might happen?

You can go to the following page to get the rest of Vonnegut’s advice. Meanwhile, just think about what you can do with this advice. And bring along your first drafts to class Wednesday.

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