Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007) wrote such beloved novels as Mother Night, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions.
Here are four of his quotes to inspire your writing!
1. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.
When I started writing novels back in 2010, I thought I had a good chance of getting published, of making some decent money from my fiction writing. Oh, how wonderfully naive I was. Oh, how insanely wrong I was that this whole writing endeavor might actually be easy.
The truth is that you should do pretty much anything else if you want to make a living. Vonnegut was right: the arts are not a way to make a living, and anyone who tells you it is is coming from a place of pure delusion. Sure, a few of us might hit a jackpot at some point if we stay with writing long enough, but there are no guarantees, and you have to be prepared for that.
Instead, what the arts does for many of us is make life more bearable. I look forward to my writing every day not because I think my latest manuscript will make me filthy rich but because it makes me happy. Because it’s fun. Sure, there’s always hope the newest thing I’m working on might go somewhere and might earn me money. But you never really know. So pursue the arts not to make a living but to make your soul grow. Do it for the right reasons.
2. I get up at 7:30 and work four hours a day. Nine to twelve in the morning, five to six in the evening. Businessmen would achieve better results if they studied human metabolism. No one works well eight hours a day. No one ought to work more than four hours.
Here’s another example of the daily working life of a famous writer, and this one might be my favorite of all — partly because it’s how I’ve actually been working the last few months or so. It’s a new schedule for my writing, and I’ve really been enjoying it.
For the longest time I wrote only for one block of the day, but lately I write in two. I write for two to three hours in the morning and then one to two hours in the early evening. I usually burn out by noon, so I take a long break in my afternoon and do other things, and then I come back around five or so to write some more before I start making dinner.
Vonnegut was absolutely right in that no one works well eight hours a day. It’s too much. And I’m astonished when I hear of authors like Dean Koontz and others who write almost non-stop from nine in the morning to five in the evening. I would never be able to do that. I have only a few good hours of writing in me a day and then I crash, I can’t write another word. And I’m sure you might be the same way.
You don’t even have to write four hours a day if you don’t want to, or if you don’t have the time to. Aim for at least an hour if you can, but remember that success in your writing life comes from the consistency of your writing day after day. Better to write for just one hour a day seven days a week than to write for eight hours a day one or two days a week, never forget that.
3. Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.
I love this quote. It’s definitely one worth remembering! Because it’s sad but true — if you’re a creative person, and you’re putting your art into the world, you are going to have critics who rage at and loathe your work. Who will tell other people to avoid your work. Who will go on Amazon or Twitter or elsewhere and attack your work with everything they have. And their words will hurt. They’ve hurt me on occasion, and sometimes it takes a day or two to recover from what a single person has said.
But whenever you’re feeling down about a painful negative review, remember that ultimately these people have put on full armor to attack a hot fudge sundae. Their attack might make them feel better, but it doesn’t add anything constructive to the conversation. And what have they written, anyway? What kind of art have they created?
If someone gives you criticism that helps your writing, then that’s one thing. I love getting criticism that can benefit either my latest piece of writing or whatever piece of writing I’m going to attempt next. But if the person’s intention is to merely destroy you and your work? Just ignore them. Mean-spirited criticism is preposterous, as Vonnegut says. And it’s in your best interest to move on.
4. One of the things that I tell beginning writers is this: If you describe a landscape, or a cityscape, or a seascape, always be sure to put a human figure somewhere in the scene. Why? Because readers are human beings, mostly interested in human beings. People are humanists. Most of them are humanists, that is.
This is such marvelous advice. It’s something I sort of instinctively knew about writing fiction, but I’m happy to finally see it put into words. It’s so true: we’re human beings interested in other human beings. And whenever I pick up a novel, I’m interested in the characters, not the landscape. I’m interested in what the character wants and how they’re going to achieve it and what’s going to prevent them from getting it.
I love reading literary fiction with the kind of stunning language I wouldn’t be able to write if I lived to be 500 years old, but one thing I don’t stand for is massive block paragraphs that describe things outside of the characters I care about. I’ve never read Madame Bovary, but one of my high school teachers told me once there’s a page-and-a-half description of a hat. I’m not sure if that’s true, but that quote from my teacher has always stuck with me. I can’t imagine reading two sentences about a hat, let alone nearly two pages.
Yes, there should be details about your setting and about the ground your characters walk on, but only give us what we need to know so we can put most of our focus on the story and the characters. Give us little strokes of the setting here and there, but please don’t stop everything for a page or longer to tell us everything about the city your characters live in. As soon as you go down that read of deadly dull telling, you’re in trouble. Especially if it comes early in your story before we’ve become invested in your characters.
Just remember we are interested in human beings, and so your primary focus on whatever kind of fiction you’re writing should be to create three-dimensional, fascinating, flawed, compelling characters. Don’t try to prove something about your mastery of the English language by describing a seascape for three pages. You’ll prove you’re a great storyteller instead by allowing the human beings of your narrative to flourish on the page.
PS Ready to be inspired? My newest craft book From Douglas Adams to Markus Zusak: Quotes by 100 Amazing Authors to Inspire Your Writing is now available on Amazon!
One thought on “4 Quotes by Kurt Vonnegut to Make You a Better Writer”
There’s some really great stuff in here, Brian. The writing schedule that works for you, helps you be productive, and perhaps most importantly makes you look forward to writing is the best schedule. And that advice about putting human beings into descriptive scenes was new to me and explains why sometimes I’ll read stuff and it’s not sticking.
Your high school teacher deserves their degree revoked, though, for telling you that about Madame Bovary. It’s a beautiful and devastating book about a woman whose misconceptions about what love looks like falls into adultery and her life spirals downward into debt, abandonment, and tragedy. Flaubert’s writing was actually innovative in many ways. That teacher did you a major disservice. I shudder to think what other books she turned people off from. And I don’t quite think she was correct about the hat.