Essay assignment by Kurt Vonnegut of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Suzanne McConnell, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s students in her “Form of Fiction” class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, recorded this assignment, explaining that Vonnegut “wrote her class assignments in letter form, as a way to speak personally to each member of the class. ” The result is part assignment, part letter, part guide to writing and to life.
This assignment is reprinted from Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield, now available from Delacorte Press.
FORM OF FICTION DURATION OF TRANSFER OF PAPER
This course began in the form and theory of fiction, became the form of fiction, then the form and texture of fiction, then surface criticism, or how to speak out of the corner of your mouth like a true pro. It will likely be Animal Husbandry 108 by the time Black February arrives. As a dear friend told me years ago, âKeep your hat on. We could end up miles from here.
As for your essays, I would like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily thrilled, but also to be eagerly swift with those performers who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all …”
I invite you to read the fifteen tales of Masters of the Modern News (W. Havighurst, editor, 1955, Harcourt, Brace, $ 14.95 in paperback). Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, each starting as if, only seven minutes before, you had swallowed two ounces of a really good drink. “Unless you are like little children …”
Then, reproduce on a single sheet of clean white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers and substituting for each number a note from A to F. The notes should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack. I don’t care what grades you give. I stress that you like some stories more than others.
Proceed by the hallucination that you are a minor but useful editor on a good non-college literary magazine. Take three stories that you like the most and three that you like the least, six in all, and claim that they have been proposed for publication. Write a report on each to submit to a wise, respected, witty, world-weary superior.
Don’t do it as an academic critic, or as an art-drunk person, or as a barbarian in the literary market. Do it as a sensitive person who has some practical hunches on how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn yourself as you please, but do it rather flatly, pragmatically, with a shrewd attention to boring or rewarding details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good publishers, God knows.
Since there are eighty of you and I don’t want to go blind or kill anyone, twenty pages from each of you should do. Don’t bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words that I know.
Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield. Delacorte press.
Read Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to a friend who is considering teaching in Iowa.
See all parts in this month’s Slate Book Review.
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