Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Christmas Gift from Kurt Vonnegut

What can I say about Christmas?  Not much that hasn’t been said better by many. What can I say about writing?  No much.  But I wanted today’s blog to be about one or the other.   I was stymied.  But you never know when help is going to drop into your lap.

On Monday, a friend on Facebook asked me specifically and publicly a question that has been making the rounds: Name ten books that have stayed with you.  Because I love the friend who asked, I had to answer.  Others on his list of respondents, spoke eloquently of the trouble they had choosing the right books to list.  I was not inclined to soul search over the question.   Examining my soul when it comes to books would be too intense a task.  You see, I am profligate, promiscuous when it comes to books.  I read five, seven at a time.  I take one to bed with me and stay up all night with it.   The next night I take another one, taste it, and give it a quick kiss-off.  I am insatiable.  I go back and spend many evenings enthralled with old loves.  They almost always satisfy in the same way they did when my love for them was new.  Sometimes, they are better than I remembered.

Okay, I am going to drop this salacious subtext now and get on with my main point.

For my ten books, I merely made a FAST list, thinking of books that I talk about often in the course of year’s conversations.  When I got to ten, I stopped.   I did not rethink.  Here is my list, for what it’s worth:

"Persuasion" by Jane Austen
"Katherine" by Anya Seton
"Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame
"The Sirens of Titan" by Kurt Vonnegut
"Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare (if a play counts as a book)
"The Cater Street Hangman" by Ann Perry
"Ragtime" E.L Doctorow
"Il Gatopardo" (The Leopard) by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
"Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"Tar Baby" by Toni Morrison

The one item on this list that gave me pause was Vonnegut’s.  I have all his books, have read every word of his I could get my hands on.  My feelings for the man border on worship.  The book I listed was the first I read.  It is not his best.  Not nearly.  But my instructions included the phrase “stuck with you” and The Sirens of Titan is the one I talk about most—so many fabulous characters, images, observations on the human condition.

So where is the Christmas gift, you may well ask.

Here it comes.

Many years ago, the International Paper Company ran a series of two-page-spread ads where they asked famous and brilliant people to expound on an interesting topic.  (Advertisers used to do stuff like that, in the good old days.)  They ran one called “How to Write with Style” by Kurt Vonnegut.  When I was teaching writing to corporate types, I used to order reprints, made available free of charge, that I handed out to my students.  At the bottom, the ad said, “Printed in U.S. on International Paper Company’s Springhill Offset, basis 6-lb.”  I have kept a copy in my files for years.  I have to say: the paper stock held up.

I don’t have permission to reproduce it here, but I will give you Vonnegut’s rules, if not all his words:
  1. Find a subject you care about
  2. Don’t ramble on, though
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Have the guts to cut
  5. Sound like yourself
  6. Say what you mean to say
  7. Pity the readers
  8. For really detailed advice 

Number 8 is followed by a recommendation to read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

In between the rules, are the wonderful words, written in Vonnegut’s brilliant style. I will gladly give you a copy of the two pages as my gift to you.  All you have to do is go to my website and send me your mailing address.  You will get your gift by return mail.

Merry Christmas.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. Thanks for this Annamaria. I am a Vonnegut fan and count many among my friends. They will all be delighted with this. I am also passing on my favorite bit of advice from Vonnegut (though I have to admit I haven't always adhered to this): "Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.”

  2. Steph, I look forward to sending out the gift to one and all. Regarding the semicolon, I confess I use one at least once every couple of books. I do think they change the rhythm in a sensitive readers mind. Jimmy Breslin--who was reporting for the still dear departed Herald Tribune (I believe)--was once receiving letters from the unapprehended Son of Sam Serial killer. Breslin posited that the killer must be someone who went to Catholic School because he understood the use the semicolon. Breslin turned out to be mistaken about Berkowitz's origins, but despite that I have always thought that, at least for my generation, properly using the semicolon was a result of exposure to nuns. College was not required.

  3. I had an exchange with my editor about the semicolon. I thought it was a bad idea for him to 'help' some of my on-purpose comma splices with semis in my dialog. Nobody thinks with semicolons when they're talking, and it seemed way too Dickensian for me. I sympathize with your instinct not to want to reply to your friend's request. Why 10? Most readers have way more than 10 that stay with us. And they stay with us for different reasons. No one wants to discuss why. We just want the list. We are obsessed with lists. I blame magazine covers. Ten Ways to Make Sure He Stays! Ten Ways to Dump the Loser! Ten Ways to Make Answers to Life Look Easy! But glancing into a writer's/reader's bookcase to see the books she's held onto is always interesting.

  4. Sheila, you are brilliant! Yes, we are obsessed with lists and the magazines are at fault... it is such an easy dump.... and it ties all life into little bundles for our modern frazzled minds! Would you ever ask your husband - give me ten reasons you married me?????? tjs

  5. Sheila, there must be fifty ways to use a comma. Or the semicolon. And for line editors to think they know better than we do. Fighting back with the line editor is part of our job that most people do not ever imagine.