Kurt Vonnegut’s Lost NYU Lecture on What It Takes to Be a Writer, Animated
By Maria Popova
Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922–April 11, 2007) was not only a writer of timeless wisdom on the craft, but an irrepressible humanist of rare insight into the secret of happiness and astute advice on living meaningfully. Although he was the era’s most sought-after commencement speaker and delivered some masterful lectures — including his now-legendary dissection of the shapes of stories — the most revealing talk Vonnegut ever gave was in many ways an antithesis to his formal public appearances.
On November 8, 1970 — three days before his forty-eight birthday and shortly after his play Happy Birthday, Wanda June opened in New York — Vonnegut showed up at an NYU classroom as a guest lecturer with a handful of handwritten talking points. In the fifty meandering minutes that followed, the beloved author opened up about his life and his writing with unparalleled candor, discussing his mother’s mental illness, being raised by his African American nanny Ida, what it takes to be a writer, and the ultimate task of the artist.
The talk was recorded and broadcast on New York’s WBAI public radio station, and has been preserved by the Pacifica Radio Archives. Forty-five years later, the wonderful folks of Blank on Blank have brought an excerpt of it to life in one of their signature animations — please enjoy:
I’ve heard that a writer is lucky because he cures himself every day with his work. What everybody is well advised to do is to not write about your own life — this is, if you want to write fast. You will be writing about your own life anyway — but you won’t know it.
And, the thing is, in order to sit alone and work alone all day long, you must be a terrible overreacter. You’re sitting there doing what paranoids do — putting together clues, making them add up… Putting the fact that they put me in room 471… What does that mean and everything?
Well, nothing means anything — except the artist makes his living by pretending, by putting it in a meaningful hole, though no such holes exist.
For Vonnegut’s most dedicated fans, the full 50-minute recording is available in its entirety:
For more Blank on Blank goodness, see Ray Bradbury on storytelling, Hunter S. Thompson on the only cure for our destructive tendencies, John Lennon and Yoko Ono on love, David Foster Wallace on ambition, Jane Goodall on life, and Richard Feynman on the most important thing.
Published November 11, 2015