Kurt Vonnegut on Making a Living as a Writer

Kurt Vonnegut and his former student, Suzanne McConnell, share excellent advice on making a living for creative writers.

Only a very few people makes their living from creative writing, and even fewer get rich and famous. The rest need jobs, and even the few who eventually make a living at writing need jobs until the day.

Vonnegut recommends finding work that you care about, or finding something to care about in your job. Maybe you hate the job but love your coworkers. Some jobs provide fodder for stories, such as medicine and law. (I was going to say police work would provide the same fodder, but I can only think of one cop-turned-writer, Joseph Wambaugh.) But any job can be fulfilling and provide grist for creative writing.

Vonnegut recommends “hack writing” — technical writing and ad copy (I expect business technology journalism falls in that category.)

One problem with hack-writing jobs is

… they replicate the confines of writing. Who wants to stare at a computer screen after staring at one already for hours? Or play with words for yourself after arranging them for hours for your paycheck?

To circumvent that duplication, you might write by hand, or in snatches of time, or in a bar—anywhere distinctly different and more playful than your day job requires.”

Some jobs become consuming, and the writer never gets around to doing actual creative writing. I’d say that’s what happened to me, which is one reason why I have never done much creative writing over the course of my life. (But that’s only part of it.)

Vonnegut and McConnell also talk about the problems on the other end of the spectrum, which emerged when Vonneguat achieved global fame and fortune when he was in his 40s. Years earlier, struggling Vonnegut had borrowed from his son Mark’s paper route to help the family make ends meet; now he was a wealthy man, feted around the world.

At a party honoring Vonnegut after a reading at a university, no one … came up and spoke to him or his wife Jill. Everyone was too timid.

I had a similar experience when I saw Neal Stephenson speak at a conference not too long ago. We ended up as the only two people at the buffet line, and I was too much in awe to say anything. Even as a journalist, I had nothing to ask him. So I just stood there like an idiot, scooping food on my plate and acting like the guy standing next to me was nobody in particular.

Here’s something funny about that: In addition to admiring Stephenson, was also admiring the vest he was wearing at the time. I have since looked in vain for a vest like it. So if it had only occurred to me, I could have said, “I like your vest. Do you mind if I ask where you got it?” And then I woudl have had a conversation with Neal Stephenson and a great vest! But I didn’t think of it; I was just tongue-tied.

A few years later Kurt rocketed from shame-faced classroom confession about trying to be urbane to joining the company of other renowned writers invited to the White House.

Such a propulsion is hard on friends and family. Your dad, husband, uncle—even your teacher—is suddenly someone else, someone exalted, someone fans think they know, someone who has much less time for you.

“I grew up thinking everything would be perfect if we just had a little more money. Instead the money just blew everything apart,” according to Mark. “Once he was famous, people gathered around my father like hungry guppies around a piece of bread. There was never enough Kurt to go around.”

Vonnegut said he was in his 40s when he hit that level of success, and was fortunate to have the tools to deal with it. He expressed concern in the early 80s for John Irving, who achieved the same level of success as a much younger man.

Kurt Vonnegut on Making a Living as a Writer [Kurt Vonnegut and Suzanne McConnell, The Nation]

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