May 18, 1996
New York City
TO ALEX MASLANSKY
Alex Maslansky is a nephew of Dr. Robert Maslansky.
Dear Alex --
Your Uncle Bob says you want to become a writer.
I have never regretted helping people to write better, even though they weren't going to make livings with that particular skill, since they were learning how to be more graceful. My father and mother and grandparents wrote expressively and beguilingly simply because they were civilized.
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. We need to know what those are. Or I do.
The secret of universality is provincialism. Don't open a window and make love to the world. Literary masterpieces since the birth of the novel and short story have all been obsessed with narrow societies, Emma Bovary's, Leopold Bloom's, about which most readers cannot be expected to know much. They'll learn, those readers will. A writer is first and foremost a teacher.
When I teach creative writing, my lessons are mainly about sociability. Please, please, please, make sure the reader is having an interesting time, and the hell with you. Young people find this dictum very inconvenient, an exasperating barrier between themselves and where they want to get as soon as possible.
From "Kurt Vonnegut: Letters," edited with an introduction by Dan Wakefield. Copyright © 2012 by The Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Trust. Reprinted by arrangement with Delacorte Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.