Writing Lessons from the Dead: Kurt Vonnegut
The night after Charles Bukowski checked in to my hotel, I showed up to work twenty minutes before my shift started. The 3:00 PM – 11:00 PM girl looked at me a full minute in disbelief before finally acknowledging that I was, in fact, standing in the lobby. I was pretty infamous for never being less than five minutes late, so to show up twenty minutes early was practically a miracle.
“What are you doing here?” 3-11 asked me.
I shrugged. “This is where they pay me to be.”
“But you’re early.”
I responded by mumbling some gibberish and ventured behind the front desk. I was eager to talk with Bukowski again. This time I had brought a six-pack of beer to offer as a present in exchange for further discussions. I’d come in early because I honestly couldn’t wait outside the hotel any longer. I’d been in the parking lot the last hour, just waiting until 11:00 PM.
I convinced the 3-11 girl to leave at a quarter ‘til, promising I would clock her out at 11:00 and not snitch to management. I didn’t really like her, but I’d do whatever it took to get her out of the building. As soon as she left, I looked up Buk’s guest page. “Chinaski, Henry” was still checked in, scheduled to checkout next week. We would have plenty of time to talk.
I decided it would be best to wait until later in the night, when the rest of the straggling guests should have already checked in to their reservations. I stood behind the front desk, prancing up and down. It was going to be a long night.
I printed out my ARRIVALS report and checked the list. There were still five guests scheduled to check in tonight. Three of them had the same last name, so odds were they would all be checking in together. I recognized one of the other two remaining names as a guest who frequently made reservations on his business account and typically never showed up. The last name was, at first glance, one I had never seen before. Then I looked at it more closely and realized the significance of the name: “TROUT, KILGORE”.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me,” I said to the empty lobby.
“Well, that’s highly possible,” the lobby responded. Only it wasn’t the lobby. It was Kurt Vonnegut, who had somehow entered the hotel without me noticing and was now sitting in one of the armchairs in the center of the room. He stared at me, one leg crossed over the other, smiling.
I rubbed my eyes and looked again. He was still there, taking a long drag from a Pall Mall.
Kurt fucking Vonnegut.
What was happening?
In this sort of situation, most people would have shouted all sorts of praise and maniacal proclamations of ultimate fandom. But I was an idiot, so of course I said, “Uh, you can’t smoke in here.”
Vonnegut smiled. He looked up at the ceiling, watching the cigarette smoke swirl around the smoke alarm above him. He looked back at me and shrugged. “Your device is either poor, or my cigarettes are simply too strong. Either way, I think I can be let off the hook.”
“Well, it’s still bad for you, you know,” I told him, and immediately felt like punching myself in the face. I was just avoiding the inevitable confrontation of another dead author checking in to my hotel.
“That’s the point, isn’t it?” he asked. “I’ve always considered it the slowest way to commit suicide, and I am okay with that.”
“But that isn’t how you die,” I said. “You fall down the stairs. It was all over the news like seven years ago.”
Vonnegut laughed. “Surely you’re thinking of my older self. Or maybe my younger self. Even I get confused sometimes.”
“Anyway!” Vonnegut stood up and approached the front desk. “If I’m not mistaken, I should have a reservation. The bill should already be paid for.”
I brought up the reservation for “TROUT, KILGORE” and sure enough, there was a note from management to use the credit card already on file. But I wasn’t ready to check him in. I needed some answers. Bukowski wasn’t much help, but that was expected—he was Bukowski, after all. But now Vonnegut? No, fuck this.
“Why are you here?” I asked him.
He raised his eyebrows. “I assume for the same reason most of your guests are here—to sleep. But beyond that, hell, I guess we’re here to fart around, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”
“No, I mean, how are you specifically standing in my hotel? How is Bukowski here? You’re both dead. This is crazy.”
Vonnegut nodded. “And thus is the answer to all questions: insanity.”
“I would have to be insane,” I said. “I’ve edited these two anthologies, right? Well, okay, the one that was just released was a tribute to Bukowski, and yesterday the dude checks in to my hotel. Before the Bukowski anthology, I edited a tribute anthology to you, Mr. Vonnegut. And now, sure enough, here you fucking are.”
“Stranger things have happened.”
Vonnegut shrugged. “Salamanders.”
The man had a point.
“So, what, are you gonna give me writing advice, too?” I asked. Everything about this situation was driving me mad with confusion and curiosity.
“What do you mean?” Vonnegut said. “I’ve come here for a bed, not a student.”
“Just, last night, when Bukowski checked in, he gave me writing advice. I thought you were here to do the same, maybe.”
“You’re a writer?” Vonnegut smiled and lit a new Pall Mall, dropping his previous one to the recently mopped lobby floor. “That’s wonderful.”
“That depends on who you ask, I think.”
“Well, I’ve already given all the writing advice I’m to give in this lifetime, and all the others. Surely you’re familiar with them.”
Of course I’d heard of his writing rules before. When I first read Slaughterhouse-Five, I had consumed every ounce of information about him available online. But, now that he asked me, my mind was drawing a blank.
Then one clicked in my head, and I slapped the front desk out of excitement. “Yeah!” I said. “I remember one. Start as close to the end as possible.”
Vonnegut nodded. “And what were the other seven?”
“Man. I have no idea.”
“All right, I’ll play.” Vonnegut cracked his neck. “You want to be a writer? You’re already crazy, so that’s good. Now pay attention. To be a writer, you must use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”
“Am I wasting your time?” I asked, terrified.
“Well, I was looking forward to that bed, but the bed can wait. You have questions. You think I have the answers. I don’t. But we can pretend I do.”
“I don’t know what I want anymore.”
“You want to write.”
“Yes,” I said. “But I don’t know why. I don’t understand this urge. It’s been with me my entire lifetime, burning. Burning not like a candlewick, but a volcano. Why?”
“Why do we write?” Vonnegut said. “That’s the wrong question, I think. The question you need to ask is, why are writers needed?”
“Oh,” I said. The lobby remained silent for a few moments as he stared at me, expecting an answer I didn’t have. “Well, why are they?”
“Because 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.’ The written word is a powerful thing, Max. They connect us to the world when we are most alone.”
I had no response. I leaned over the front desk and rested my head against its cool Formica surface. I needed sleep. I needed shock therapy. I needed a brain transplant.
“Okay, so back to writing,” he said. “The key to making people come to life on the page is to give every character a desire. They should all want something, even if it is only a glass of water. And, of course, you must give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”
“Nobody can root for anybody if they follow them long enough,” I said.
Vonnegut smiled. “A writer’s job is to 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.”
I wondered if my life was a story, what horrible thing would be happening to me next. And just like that, the hotel phone rang. I answered it on the third ring, and a lady informed me her toilet was clogged and leaking out shit-water all over the bathroom. I told her I’d be up to her room in a few minutes, and to try her best not to drown. She told me she’d try.
“Sorry about that,” I said, hanging up the phone. “Please continue.”
“Well,” Vonnegut said, “I don’t know what you struggle with when writing. Whether it’s plot, or characterization, or just plain old motivation. I will say this, though: give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell 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.”
Something about that last bit of advice didn’t settle right with me, but I bit my tongue and let him continue.
“Every sentence should do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action,” he said. “Basically, do not ramble.”
The phone started ringing again, but I ignored it. I nodded at Vonnegut. “The phone isn’t important. I’m still listening. Go on.”
Vonnegut leaned forward. “My last rule, Max, is this: 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. You understand?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“Good.” Vonnegut dropped his cigarette butt and lit another Pall Mall. “Now, of course, with all that being said, the greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules but the first, which would be the one about never wasting a stranger’s time. But it’s okay to break the rules. Great writers tend to do that.”
He took a long drag from his Pall Mall and watched the smoke drift into the air. "We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down."
The phone rang again. I sighed, apologized to Vonnegut, and answered it.
“My bathroom is covered in shit!” the lady on the phone screamed into my ear. “Come clean it up, you useless bastard!”
I had to hold the phone a few inches from my head to prevent her voice from bursting my eardrums. “Uh, yes ma’am, I’ll be up there right away.”
“That’s what you said ten minutes ago!” she shouted.
Before I could respond, Vonnegut yanked the telephone from my hand and brought it to his ear.
“What are you doing?” I said, reaching for the phone. He pushed me away and cleared his voice.
“Hey, we’re having a conversation here,” Vonnegut said. “So why don’t you take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut? Why don’t you take a flying fuck at the mooooooooooooon?”
He handed me back the phone, laughing hysterically. I could hear the lady still screaming on the other end, but I refused to acknowledge her. Instead, I watched as Vonnegut took his room keys and skipped toward the elevator, still laughing.
A few minutes later I scavenged a plunger from the break room and went up to the guest’s room to clean up her shit.
So it goes.
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