Tuesday, September 16th, 2014
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2005 / New York City

Kurt Vonnegut at the Blackboard

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I want to share with you something I’ve learned. I’ll draw it on the blackboard behind me so you can follow more easily [draws a vertical line on the blackboard]. This is the G-I axis: good fortune-ill fortune. Death and terrible poverty, sickness down here—great prosperity, wonderful health up there. Your average state of affairs here in the middle [points to bottom, top, and middle of line respectively].

This is the B-E axis. B for beginning, E for entropy. Okay. Not every story has that very simple, very pretty shape that even a computer can understand [draws horizontal line extending from middle of G-I axis].

Vonnegut1.jpg

Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G-I axis]. You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted. The story is “Man in Hole,” but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.

Another is called “Boy Meets Girl,” but this needn’t be about a boy meeting a girl [begins drawing line B]. It’s: somebody, an ordinary person, on a day like any other day, comes across something perfectly wonderful: “Oh boy, this is my lucky day!” … [drawing line downward]. “Shit!” … [drawing line back up again]. And gets back up again.

Vonnegut2.jpg

Now, I don’t mean to intimidate you, but after being a chemist as an undergraduate at Cornell, after the war I went to the University of Chicago and studied anthropology, and eventually I took a masters degree in that field. Saul Bellow was in that same department, and neither one of us ever made a field trip. Although we certainly imagined some. I started going to the library in search of reports about ethnographers, preachers, and explorers—those imperialists—to find out what sorts of stories they’d collected from primitive people. It was a big mistake for me to take a degree in anthropology anyway, because I can’t stand primitive people—they’re so stupid. But anyway, I read these stories, one after another, collected from primitive people all over the world, and they were dead level, like the B-E axis here. So all right. Primitive people deserve to lose with their lousy stories. They really are backward. Look at the wonderful rise and fall of our stories.

One of the most popular stories ever told starts down here [begins line C below B-E axis]. Who is this person who’s despondent? She’s a girl of about fifteen or sixteen whose mother had died, so why wouldn’t she be low? And her father got married almost immediately to a terrible battle-axe with two mean daughters. You’ve heard it?

There’s to be a party at the palace. She has to help her two stepsisters and her dreadful stepmother get ready to go, but she herself has to stay home. Is she even sadder now? No, she’s already a broken-hearted little girl. The death of her mother is enough. Things can’t get any worse than that. So okay, they all leave for the party. Her fairy godmother shows up [draws incremental rise], gives her pantyhose, mascara, and a means of transportation to get to the party.

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  • Vonnegut was a great writer and a great man. This piece is typical of his genius.

    Posted by Jim Lindsay on Wed 24 Mar 2010

  • I miss you, Mr. Vonnegut. I miss the storyteller that has such a bold capacity to point out even the most basic absurdities in life and culture. And I think this point of his still stands, only the amplitude of his sine waves are diminishing even now as popular culture movies like Avatar and Star Wars (1-3) basically alleviate themselves of any concern with the characters, leaving cardboard cut-outs in their wake. There are still films and (more) novels that attempt to tell the truth but you have to look hard for them, and none of them do it with the bravado that Vonnegut did.

    Posted by Russell W on Thu 25 Mar 2010

  • I saw Mr Vonnegut speak in Austin years ago, and he had his blackboard. It was one of the most mesmerizing experiences of my life. I miss you Mr Vonnegut.

    Posted by dave on Thu 25 Mar 2010

  • What's so great about stating the glaringly obvious? Vonnegut was a rich man's Billy Connelly.

    Posted by rragabond on Mon 29 Mar 2010

  • i miss you too mr vonnegut, for me you wrote the truest things ive ever read

    Posted by moranity on Mon 29 Mar 2010

  • I would say the world is poorer for the passing of Mr. Vonnegut, but that sort of misses the point of this article (it seems). What is good news and what is bad news? We have the life and work of Mr. Vonnegut and I certainly consider that an enormous gift.

    On the topic of good news/bad news though, one of the most interesting and succinct discussions of that is a parable related by Stephen Mitchell in his commentary on chapter 74 of the Tao Te Ching (google books example or page 125 if you have the book).

    Posted by Larry Mills-Gahl on Wed 31 Mar 2010

  • Well, Mr. Vonnegut, did you ask?

    Posted by Mary Steel on Wed 31 Mar 2010

  • Larry Mills-Gahl said something very similar to what I was thinking (I had the Alan Watts version of the story of the Farmer's Horse in mind, but there's little difference). I'm guessing that Mr. Vonnegut wasn't unaware of the taoist angle, but emphasizing tradition of any kind wasn't much his style.

    Posted by Alan Hartley on Tue 6 Apr 2010

  • Wow!that really said a lot , and some of you have even seen this man in person! I'm going to have to find out more about this guy!

    Posted by Andrea on Wed 7 Apr 2010

  • you're annoying to read

    Posted by martim on Mon 19 Apr 2010

  • "What's so great about stating the glaringly obvious?"

    Because some people can't see past the end of their nose.

    Posted by fred on Thu 29 Apr 2010

  • "What's so great about stating the glaringly obvious?"

    The fact that it seems so "glaringly obvious" is partly a product of the genius of his presentation. I'm surprised you didn't already know that, but apparently that's a point that wasn't glaringly obvious to you.

    Posted by Bob Loblaw on Sun 2 May 2010

  • The bad news is that Vonnegut is no longer writing.

    The good news is that now we can definitely read everything he wrote.

    How much can we truly miss a guy whose words still resonate in our heads?

    So it goes.

    Posted by editec on Tue 11 May 2010

  • RRagabond--it's that no one else has had the balls to say it quite like Vonnegut had. No one else was willing to admit that practically every story we've ever written or digested has been the same story, and that masterpieces are mere representations of true life. The truly good literature, as Vonnegut describes, is not what we want to read, but rather what we don't want to read because it is not an escape at all, rather a window to what we can already see. Yes, he's stating the obvious, but without him would we accept it as obvious? And would we recognize "masterpieces" for what they are?

    Posted by AnnaS on Sun 30 May 2010

  • Like Dave in Austin, I saw Vonnegut give his blackboard talk at Northwestern in 1990. I still treasure that experience. I was just telling someone about this lecture the other day, before I stumbled (literally) upon this page. Thanks for posting this!

    Posted by blueskydrive on Fri 4 Jun 2010

  • Try to draw these axis for the article above.

    Posted by Luiz Martins on Tue 10 Aug 2010

  • What's so great about stating the glaringly obvious? Vonnegut was a rich man's Billy Connelly.

    Posted by vedette on Thu 4 Nov 2010

  • Which one of his books are these drawings from? I can't find all of my books and it is driving me crazy not being able to remember!

    Posted by Ellyott on Sat 27 Nov 2010

  • @Ellyott It's in Armageddon in Retrospect, if I'm not mistaken.

    Posted by darliza on Sun 5 Dec 2010

  • I am mistaken. It's A Man Without a Country. I'm positive of that now; just checked my copy.

    Posted by darliza on Sun 5 Dec 2010

  • Was it good news or bad news? Does it matter? Did you enjoy the story? Was the story memorable?

    Posted by ArcFlash on Tue 21 Dec 2010

  • There is a surprising amount of mathematical structure, both in stories themselves, and in models of the storybook characters who populate the stories.

    Tom Clancy (the spy novelist) lends his name to one of the attendant theorems.

    Clancy's Theorem states that, over the cast of characters (primarily the main protagonist and the main antagonist), the (vector) sum of all fears must be in net balance. In other words, we get much ado about nothing.

    Details here: "The Bardic Arts in Cognition, Affect, and Learning"

    Also, take note of the Phase Plane Diagram in the above analysis, which provides yet another mathematical view of the undulating (sinusoidal) learning curve for any given character in a story.

    Notice how the undulations (the second derivative) correspond to positive and negative swings of emotions.

    Posted by Barry Kort on Fri 27 May 2011

  • WHY IN THE WORLD DID YOU ELIDE THE FIRST PARAGRAPHS? THE QUOTE ABOUT THE SEMICOLON, THE ADVISE ABOUT GOING INTO THE ARTS? THE INTRODUCTION TO THIS ESSAY TRULY SETS THE STAGE FOR THE "LESSON." WITHOUT IT, THE CONTEXT IS COMPLETELY DECIMATED! DO VONNEGUT THE SERVICE OF PUBLISHING THE ENTIRE ESSAY! THIS IS TRULY A DISGRACE!

    Posted by CRW Instructor on Tue 6 Sep 2011

  • I am mistaken. It's A Man Without a Country. I'm positive of that now; just checked my copy.

    Posted by custom essay writing services on Tue 1 Nov 2011

  • I actually saw KV give this lecture in a presentation to my College back in the 80's, at a lecture series he titled "How To Get A Job Like Mine". This really captures what remember nicely.

    Posted by D3 on Mon 12 Dec 2011

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About the Text

From “Here is a lesson in creative writing.” After surviving the firebombing of Dresden as a POW in World War II, the novelist, satirist, and essayist found work as a reporter at the Chicago News Bureau in the late forties. He published Player Piano in 1952 and Cat’s Cradle in 1963 before winning wide acclaim in 1969 for Slaughterhouse-Five, which drew upon his Dresden experiences. He died in New York in 2007 at the age of eighty-four.

Art is a jealous mistress, and if a man have a genius for painting, poetry, music, architecture, or philosophy, he makes a bad husband and an ill provider.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1860
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Robert B. Weide talks about his decades-long production of a documentary on Kurt Vonnegut due to be released in 2015.
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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