December 7, 2012

"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."

Kurt Vonnegut, to his Iowa Writers' Workshop class in 1965 (reprinted in this collection of his letters).

19 comments:

Rocketeer said...

Kurt Vonnegut: a tremendous writer who lacked any self awareness or sense of shame.

tiger said...

Meh.

Big deal.

n.n said...

The universe is clearly a selective conception. Its nature is subordinate to human ego.

Mitchell the Bat said...

Vonnegut gave better assignments than the one I remember from high school: "Which is itchier, curiosity or a wool sweater?"

Freeman Hunt said...

I read his books my senior year of high school. Loved them.

And then I turned out to be both cynical and religious.

Carol said...

I am impatient with writers whose first assumption is that all men must be in rebellion against the Universe.

Coketown said...

I would like your term papers to be about shoes.

Hahaha, no really. He's onto something with the religious part. But not the cynical part. Cynicism works for some writers. Waugh was both religious and cynical, and the effect was sublime. But most just come across as stubborn coots.

But I think every writer benefits from religiosity in their writing. A religious temperament is practically a prerequisite. Which isn't to say they have to be religious. Stop jumping to conclusions. For fucks sake, I hate when people do that.

In all my writing courses and workshops, there was a distinct line between those with religious and secular temperaments. The secular works were drab and inconsequential, devoid of wonder and curiosity. They examined the material and psychological and what was known about them. They seldom strayed to speculate on what wasn't known about them.

Those with religious temperaments, whether the writers were actually religious or not, had more of that wondering quality that I love. They looked out at the world and wrote about what lies beyond the mere material, whether it's God or some irreligious purpose or simple meaning. Beneath the facade is some structure, some order, distinct from the material but equally knowable--what is it? This story explores what it is. The idea of mysteries is powerful--that something exists that we do not, or perhaps cannot, know. Secular temperaments don't cherish mysteries. If we haven't yet explained it, it will someday be explained, and the explanation is material. The end.

wyo sis said...

I have a feeling I'm cynical about what he's religious about and religious about what he's cynical about.

Franklin said...

What a pretentious prick.

deborah said...

"...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."

What would be an example of this?

Freeman Hunt said...

I have a feeling I'm cynical about what he's religious about and religious about what he's cynical about.

Ha! Same and well put.

ricpic said...

I want you to adore the universe...

Well lah dee dah.

Anne B. said...

It's a shame Flannery O'Connor had long left the Iowa Writer's Workshop by the time Vonnegut came along. I would have loved to hear what she had to say about him.

Crunchy Frog said...

And so it goes.

deborah said...

:)

deborah said...

Dread told him when to stop. Lack of it told him when to move again.

Sam L. said...

Kurt just never worked for me.

Kirk Parker said...

Yeah, but having seen this elsewhere, you left out the best line in his instructions for the term paper, the last line:

"Use words I know".

David said...

Typical writers workshop crap, from a guy who supposedly was cynical about crap.

Cynicism can have a sharp edge for someone like Vonnegut, who at his best was funny and original. But from most writers and thinkers cynicism is boring.