Kurt Vonnegut’s Lessons on Writing And Life

5 Lessons on Writing and 5 Lessons on Life From a Creative Genius

Oliver Morris/Getty Images

Oliver Morris/Getty Images

“I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.” – Kurt Vonnegut

 I was introduced to Kurt Vonnegut via Tim Ferriss’ podcast. Ferriss counted Cat’s Cradle among his favorite books and I added it to my looooong list of books I wanted to read.

A year ago I finally read Cat’s Cradle and I was impressed with Vonnegut’s inventiveness and unique style. Naturally, I had to add him to my list of writers I wanted to find out more about and share their lessons on writing, creativity and life. So it goes…

Kurt Vonnegut is very quotable when he’s handing out advice on writing but also on life or creativity. Let’s dive in!

Vonnegut’s advice for writing short stories

Lessons On Writing

“Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of the writer.” – Kurt Vonnegut

#1: Be a voice of the time

“My reason for writing is unfortunately in line with Hitler’s and Stalin’s: I think writers should serve their society.” – Kurt Vonnegut

That last sentence, wow. There are many ways writers can serve their society. It can be through vulnerability for starters. Writing a story or even an article that might help someone overcome some obstacle in life. Or have a reader think “Hey, I’m not alone in this.”

There are many other ways to be a voice of the time and serve society. I’d like to use topics that dominate the news, our technological advancement or basic human virtues and vices to explore what it means to be human in this age. I hope I can somewhat inspire readers through these stories and make them reflect upon their own lives. That to me is the best thing I can achieve as a writer.

So how are you trying to serve society with your writing?


#2: Keep it simple

“As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do. 

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” – Kurt Vonnegut

This quote is very long, but it contains such a valuable style lesson. Whenever I struggle with a sentence or scene in a story, I’m usually trying to overcomplicate things. 

In finding your style, I would always urge you to keep things simple and stick to what you know. Don’t use words you barely know yourself. Use fewer words to describe something. 


#3: On characters

“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” - Kurt Vonnegut

This is perhaps one of his most famous quotes. It’s great advice on developing characters

Think about it. You want something at this very moment too. Hopefully to continue reading this article. We constantly want something in life. Since characters are designed to portray human beings in stories, they should too. Plus it creates incentives for them to move along in the story. It advances the plot.

Vonnegut: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” 

Now you can go in many directions with this. Any Game of Thrones fan knows that the author George R.R. Martin has awful things happen to his lead characters. However, going through trials, pain and grief will show a reader what a character is made of. 

People relate to (certain) kinds of pain because we all suffer from time to time. And reading allows us to shortly escape into the mind of someone else and see the world through a different lens than our own, only to grow from it.

Vonnegut: “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”

This one is pretty self-explanatory but perhaps Vonnegut’s best tip on writing out there. It’s a great tool to edit your story too. Cut out the stuff that doesn’t advance the story.


#4: How to structure a story

“Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.” – Kurt Vonnegut

In structuring a story, it’s always important to think about your reader. Why are you saying in every scene? Does it follow a logical story arc? Does the reader understand what’s going on and have you provided enough information in order for them to follow the journey of your characters?

Vonnegut: “Somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it.”

Speaking of story arcs. It’s always some variation of the above quote. It’s usually divided into three acts: introduction, confrontation, solution. 99% of the stories out there are set up like this. That’s because it works.


#5: On figuring out what to write about

“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Write down ten things you deeply care about right now. There you go, now you have multiple angles to work with. 

I don’t know if you’re a fiction writer or non-fiction writer. Perhaps both, like me. I have lists full of ideas of what to write about. And the majority all are about subjects I care about or just very interested in. Subjects that spark my curiosity, make me angry, scared, happy or generally inspired. 

Again for my short stories, I like to explore societal issues, the influence of technology on our lives, etc. These are all subjects I care about. So, what do you care about most?

Vonnegut: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

Kurt Vonnegut has it right! Many authors do this. Stephen King, for instance, writes for his wife Tabitha. Funnily enough, for me this depends on the story I’m writing. Sometimes I think of my mom, dad, or a particular friend.

It helps if you think of someone when writing. Somehow your writing gains a type of structure. You will have a specific sense of humor, tone of voice, setting, etc. And again, chances are if that particular person likes your story, there are others with similar tastes who will too.

Lessons On Life 

#1: Try and learn

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Try, fail, repeat, grind, succeed, fail, stand up, go at it again. Through trying and failing we learn and develop those wings Vonnegut it talking about.

Learn and get out there. I know it’s scary. It took me years to dare to write. The more you do something that you initially found scary or difficult, the more you learn and the more you grow.

Life’s going to throw you obstacles at every turn. Find ways to learn from those obstacles. How did you handle that particular situation? What would you differently next time? 


#2: Explore

“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center.” – Kurt Vonnegut

He could also have said: “Get out of your comfort zone.”

Explore life. Explore its possibilities, your own abilities, and interests. You have only one go at it!

I know it’s easier said than done. I like being a couch potato every once in a while too and binge a series. 

However, I’m very curious about everything and I want to try and experience everything life has to offer. 

Right now I’m traveling for 3,5 months through South America. Exploring new cultures, speaking another language, making new friends, hiking in Patagonia, exploring cities, trying new types of food. I even had a traditional Peruvian ayahuasca experience.

And when I say I want to try everything in life, I still look out for that edge. As Vonnegut says, I want to stand close to it, but I don’t want to go over.


#3: Dare

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, "It might have been”.” – Kurt Vonnegut

It’s always better to try and fail than thinking about what might have been. However, it’s not easy to do this all the time. Fear keeps us from doing things we want most in life. Like asking out that girl or starting that company.

We fantasize on our hopes and dreams, but for most of us, our fears numb us from taking action. Our fantasies change into stories about what might have been if we’d taken the leap.

The only way I know how to become better at this is by taking tiny steps towards those dreams and hopes. Small steps make your dreams less daunting. Who knows, you might be able to say: “It has been”.


#4: Don’t take life (and yourself) too seriously

“I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.” – Kurt Vonnegut

We are but tiny elements in a vast universe. We get this one chance at life and we can choose how we spent it. But most of what we think, do and say will disappear into oblivion. We will eventually.

I’m not trying to be morbid, but as the Stoics say: “Memento mori”. There’s only one certainty about life, it ends at one point. Don’t be too serious about it all. 

I wrote a very short story about changing your perspective on life in the face of adversity that quite fit the lesson here. It’s called The Moon’s View.


#5: We are all in this together

“Many people need desperately to receive this message: “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Other people think all day too. Other people have insecurities as you have. Other people have fears, worries, and issues. 

It’s easy to think that life’s out to get us. We can only exist inside our own minds, so we easily forget about others. We are all in this together. This also happens to be the title of my first collection of short stories. You aren’t the only one going through this