Kurt Vonnegut on Making a Living as a Writer

Kurt Vonnegut on Making a Living as a Writer

Kurt Vonnegut on Making a Living as a Writer

You probably won’t have to endure the downsides of fame and fortune. But you can emulate the upsides.

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Part A: From Writing

I used to teach a writers’ workshop . . . and I would say at the start of every semester, “The role model for this course is Vincent Van Gogh—who sold two paintings to his brother.” —Kurt Vonnegut

The toughest, most fundamental question for a serious writer or artist of any kind, if you’re not born with a silver spoon in your mouth, is how to support your habit.

Not only must the habit be supported. Like everyone else, the artist must first make the means to eat, clothe, and shelter him- or herself and dependents. So the artist has two major tasks. And one (which may entail several) has to bring in the bacon.

Asked what advice he would give to new young authors interested in pursuing a writing career, Vonnegut answered:

It is much harder for young writers to start now . . . it is much harder for young a lot of things to start now. . . . It’s too bad there is no way for a poor person to make a beginning as a writer now.

Vonnegut said that in 1973! What has changed in over forty-five years? It’s gotten even harder to earn money by writing. And forget making a living at it. The statistics reflect the general income disparity: there’s a tiny group of financially successful writers, a “1 percent,” and then everyone else. This cuts across genres.

Do a quick Internet search about writers’ earnings, and the following headlines will pop up: “Don’t Quit Your Day Job—The Financial Reality of Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy,” “What Writers Earn: A Cultural Myth,” “My Amazon Bestseller Made Me Nothing:” The last one, by Patrick Wensick, spells out the upshot most starkly:

Even when there’s money in writing, there’s not much money. . . .
This is what it’s like, financially, to have the indie book publicity story of the year and be near the top of the best-seller list.
Drum roll.
$12,000. . . .
The book sold plus or minus 4,000 copies.

Why is this so? Vonnegut sums it up:

There is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, adult Americans read an average of twelve books a year, heavily weighted on either end of the age spectrum. How many read fiction? God only knows.

For perspective, consider this:

Bill Styron pointed out one time, in a lecture I was privileged to hear, that the great Russian novels—which were more of an influence on American writers than Hawthorne or Twain or any American writer you’d want to name—were written for very small audiences because the literate population was very small, amid an enormous empire of illiterate people.

Kurt Vonnegut began writing short stories in order to make money. Imagine doing that now! “I had a family and wasn’t making nearly enough money to support the family so I started writing short stories on weekends and there was an enormous magazine industry at that time which paid very high prices for the stories and they needed lots of them.”

October 28, 1949

Dear Pop:

I sold my first story to Collier’s. Received my check ($750 minus a 10% agent’s commission) yesterday noon. It now appears that two more of my works have a good chance of being sold in the near future.

I think I’m on my way. I’ve deposited my first check in a savings account and, as and if I sell more, will continue to do so until I have the equivalent of one year’s pay at GE. Four more stories will do it nicely, with cash to spare (something we never had before). I will then quit this goddamn nightmare job, and never take another one so long as I live, so help me God.

I’m happier than I’ve been for a good many years.

Love.

K

The equivalent of that $750 today: $7,481.

Two years later, in 1951, he quit his day job.

Writing novels paid little compared to short stories.

“Doubleday wants me to expand ‘Barnhouse’ into a full novel. That way, I could make another $750,” he wrote ironically to Harris.

Yet it was only in the novel form that he could be free from the strictures of the popular magazine market to have his own say.

“I have a pitch, which I think will pay off,” he confides in the same letter. “I hope to build a reputation as a science-fiction writer.”

Vonnegut’s conflict between taking the risk of doing what he wanted to do, on the one hand, and his obligation as the family breadwinner and his dislike of the corporate grind, on the other, surface in his fiction during those years, notably in the story “Deer in the Works” and the novel Player Piano.

He wasn’t alone with these conflicts. Many returning World War II veterans were dismayed to find themselves in suburbia, working in corporations. In the mid-’50s, The Organization Man by William H. Whyte and the novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson, both critical of the corporate world’s conformist mentality, were best sellers.

The main point: things have changed and things have stayed the same, essentially. Yes, Vonnegut made money writing stories and cut his fiction writer’s eyeteeth on them at the same time, impossible to do now. But even though he quit his GE job to write full-time, basically he’d traded one full-time job for several others. Most of the time, though learning how to construct a darn good saleable story, he was not writing what he wanted to write.

Today, you can learn how to write well while writing whatever you really want to write. You just can’t make money at it. In fact, it’s likely you will pay to learn how. But the conflict between freelancing and the reliable nine-to-five remains.

“Psychologically, Kilgore Trout is what I thought I might become once I noticed how poor science fiction writers were and I was one of them at the time and I was as poor as any of them.”

“When I was ten,” Mark Vonnegut recalls, “Kurt asked if he could borrow the three hundred dollars I had saved up from my paper route.”

“I only wish Kilgore Trout were here,” said Eliot [in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater], “so I could shake his hand and tell him that he is the greatest writer alive today. I have just been told that he could not come because he could not afford to leave his job! And what job does this society give its greatest prophet?” Eliot choked up, and, for a few moments, he couldn’t make himself name Trout’s job. “They have made him a stock clerk in a trading stamp redemption center in Hyannis!”

The Good News:

Vonnegut struggled. If you are a writer, you will probably struggle financially as well. But struggle isn’t bad. Struggle means you’re engaged, you’re learning, striving. What really sucks is listlessness, indifference, purposelessness.

Listen to this: the toughest part of Kurt’s life economically was also the most productive.

The bulk of my work was written on Cape Cod where I lived from 1950–1970 . . . probably was the shank of my creative life. . . . I would have been quite content to have created what I did by 1970 when I finally left Cape Cod. I used to walk on the great salt marshes there and geese would fly up ahead of me and I would come home from a four-hour walk feeling healthy and happy.

PART B: ABOUT YOUR DAY JOB

When a child of the Great Depression loses a job, it is sort of like losing a billfold or a key to the front door. You go get another one.

Sometimes going to “get another one” produces startling results. “Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that ‘only nut cases want to be president.’ But he helped me become a White House speechwriter,” Robert Lehrman began an article he wrote in The New York Times. “In 1965, Vonnegut was my adviser at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I was studying fiction. One day, he said he could get me an assistantship, but I’d have to teach speech.

“‘I know nothing about speech,’ I said.

“He said something like: ‘Learn. It’s 1,800 bucks.’”

So Bob did. He discovered he loved the art of speaking. He was, as I recall, vitally involved in the anti-war movement and was often on soapboxes. The appeal of politics coalesced with his growing expertise at writing speeches, and eventually he landed a position as the chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore from 1993 to 1995. While working full-time as a speechwriter, he also published four novels and a hundred nonfiction articles. Washington politics became fuel for short stories, and his lifelong “day job” for a well-received book about it, The Political Speechwriter’s Companion: A Guide for Writers and Speakers, 2009. He still teaches speech, and continues to be in high demand as a commentator and speechwriter.

The ideal “day job” is one you enjoy, that fosters your fiction, and pays decently. Something that satisfies other aspects of yourself than writing—the physical, for example, or the collaborative or interactive. Better yet, one that entails unusual expertise, situations or environments that pique readers’ curiosity, and in itself provides fodder for stories. The practices of medicine and law have yielded up notable writers who’ve used them as subjects.

If you’re young and starting out, you might consider choosing another profession that’s satisfying and lucrative, as your first goal toward writing. If highly motivated and disciplined, with supportive family circumstances and abundant energy, you will write. Perhaps you can work part-time or will delay writing until you’ve amassed enough money to quit.

If the stories don’t come, at least you’re earning a living and having adventures doing something you value.

On the other hand, you may not choose or want, for many reasons, to have two full-time professions. Or you may not have available to you the “ifs” listed above that two professions require. Most people don’t. No worries. That’s not who you are, or what your circumstances are, or your style.

The way to handle jobs you aren’t particularly partial to: find something about the job that you do care about.

Vonnegut cared a great deal about the guys he worked with at G.E., for example. Several remained friends throughout his life.

In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, he writes about an insurance salesman who practices what might be called “obligatory caring”:

Poor, lugubrious Fred spent his mornings seeking insurance prospects in the drugstore, which was the coffee house of the rich, and the news store, which was the coffee house of the poor. He was the only man in town who had coffee in both places. . . .

Poor Fred worked like hell for the few dollars he brought home once in a while. He was working now, beaming at the carpenter and the two plumbers in the news store.

He engages them in conversation about their wives.

“I’ve done what I can for [my wife],” Fred declared. “God knows it isn’t enough. Nothing could be enough.” There was a real lump in his throat. He knew that lump had to be there and it had to be real, or he wouldn’t sell any insurance [italics mine]. “[Insurance is] something, though, something even a poor man can do for his bride.”

I discovered “obligatory caring” this way: Writing biographical prefaces for the Franklin Library Publishing Company freelance, I once got blocked when assigned what I considered a mediocre novel, until a veteran freelancer advised that instead of trying to fake it, I find something I cared about and latch onto that. I admired the author, John Hersey, just not that novel. That admiration carried me through.

In spite of Vonnegut’s hating the GE job, it provided him with the subject of his first novel and the passion to write it, as well as valuable instruction in public relations.

All jobs are gold mines for fiction.

Vonnegut encouraged us to write about work. People don’t write enough about it, he said. Most people spend a lot of time at their jobs, and the workplace holds a wealth of potential for conflict, characterization, and societal comment.

Nonprofessional jobs allow you avenues into experiencing class, power, and the inner mechanisms and underbelly of the workplace, less emotionally accessible otherwise.

“It’s a tremendous advantage to be on the edge if you’re an artist of any kind, because you can make a better commentary than someone at the center could,” Vonnegut said.

He was a private in World War II, not an officer.

Kurt told us one day about a writer friend of his who decided to paint houses, thinking that he could paint all day mechanically while his mind focused on writing. But what happened, Vonnegut said, erupting into his wheezing laughter, is that his friend just painted all day.

Similarly, I waitressed at a jazz club in the ’70s, figuring I could both earn money and listen to music. It turned out that most of the customers were other jazz musicians, too poor to tip well, and that you can’t attend to customers and listen to music simultaneously. It was also dangerous on the subway in the middle of the night. But that was fodder for a great bit in a short story.

Moral: Your job is your job. Ya gotta be present for it.

In a 1983 documentary, Kurt reported:

I get up at 7:30 and work four hours a day. Nine to twelve in the morning, five to six in the evening. Businessmen would achieve better results if they studied human metabolism. No one works well eight hours a day. No one ought to work more than four hours.

It’s easy to resent the time your job takes, to think that only if you had more time, you could write a blue streak. A novelist acquaintance, who worked full-time in the letters department of a weekly magazine, quit when her first novel sold successfully, and confided a few years afterward, “You have no idea how much I resented Newsweek.” What she’d discovered, though, was that having all the time in the world did not change her relationship to writing nearly as substantially as she’d thought it would.

To have ample time to let your own rhythms guide you, to be free of feeling your writing squeezed between necessities is marvelous. The gift of time is no joke. It matters. But the use and quality of the time matters more.

In fact, the pressure of that squeeze can make your writing time more sacred and productive.

Here’s what Vonnegut says about the notion that hack-writing jobs cripple talent:

That’s romance—that work of that sort damages a writer’s soul. At Iowa, Dick Yates and I used to give a lecture each year on the writer and the free enterprise system. The students hated it. We would talk about all the hack jobs writers could take in case they found themselves starving to death, or in case they wanted to accumulate enough capital to finance the writing of a book. Since publishers aren’t putting money into first novels anymore, and since the magazines have died, and since television isn’t buying from young freelancers anymore, and since the foundations give grants only to old poops like me, young writers are going to have to support themselves as shameless hacks. Otherwise, we are soon going to find ourselves without a contemporary literature. There is only one genuinely ghastly thing hack jobs do to writers, and that is to waste their precious time.

This student didn’t hate that lecture. I appreciated it. I felt as if someone, finally, was actually worried about us and our futures, in a fundamental way. I had just begun to worry about it myself.

As I recall, it was Kurt who engineered that forum. It wasn’t part of the curriculum. It was a surprise, a gift.

In that hard-nosed lecture, he and Yates invited us to open our mental doors to wage-earning possibilities. Technical writing, medical writing, grant writing, industrial film writing—all kinds of avenues were proposed. They suggested the advertising industry as a possible wage maker. I could hardly believe my ears. Advertising, at the heart of the heart of the establishment, was repudiated in those antiestablishment ’60s years.

“When I was supporting myself as a freelance writer doing stories for the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, I was scorned! I mean, there was a time when to be a slick writer was a disgusting thing to be, as though it were prostitution. The people who did not write for the slicks obviously did not need the money. I would have liked very much to have been that sort of person, but I wasn’t. I was the head of a family, supporting the damn thing in what seemed—to me, at least—an honorable way.”

Check out the review in Welcome to the Monkey House. It’s a marvel. Vonnegut manages to be colloquial, imaginative, informative, and also to set forth his political agendas, praising writers he loves and advocating certain social and political attitudes, all in the examination of a humble dictionary.

Whatever writing you do increases your skill in tangling with words.

Another “ghastly thing” about hack-writing jobs: 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.

Kurt concluded the lecture about jobs and how to get ahead in this way:

“Use us,” he said, bluntly.

Meaning the veteran writers who were our teachers.

I’ve a vivid recollection of how he said it. He looked straight at us, then dropped his eyes and let the words slide out of his mouth. This, he seemed to me to be conveying, was necessity’s bottom line.

Vonnegut’s student Ronni Sandroff tells an anecdote about this notion:

I wrote a story called “The Frump Queen” about a homecoming parade in Iowa City. Vonnegut liked “The Frump Queen” and offered to send it to Redbook magazine for me, but I refused. Please mother, I’d rather do it myself. The story was accepted—my first paid publication—and it wasn’t until more than a decade later that I learned that Vonnegut had sent Redbook a letter asking them to keep an eye out for the story, and the editors were super-excited to have heard from him. That was embarrassing. For years I had been telling people I was living proof that you could sell a story from the slush pile. It was something I wanted to believe, that the world was merit, not connection, based.

By the time Party Party and Girlfriends, my first book of two novellas, was ready for publication I was willing to look unfairness in the face and ask Vonnegut for a quote. “Strong, imaginative, spookily candid,” he wrote. He compared me to J. D. Salinger, too, but the editor left out that part.

Out of twenty students in a class anywhere in the country, Vonnegut told an interviewer, six will be “startlingly talented” and two might actually publish something. What distinguishes the two who get published from the others equally talented?

They will have something other than literature itself on their minds. They will probably be hustlers, too. I mean that they won’t want to wait passively for somebody to discover them. They will insist on being read.

Vonnegut admired a certain kind of chutzpah.

“Winter, 1967,” the writer Dan Gleason recounts, “and I was shivering in one of those flimsy old tin-roof Quontset huts . . . waiting impatiently for my first and only class with the great Kurt Vonnegut.” He was an undergrad journalism student, unregistered for the class, hoping to audit. But it was standing room only. Vonnegut told him to come see him before the next semester and he could enroll.

I was actually going to comply but when the class met again . . . I swiped a chair from another hut and carried it into Vonnegut’s class and plopped down. . . . When I caught his eye, he did a double take and asked if I was supposed to be in the class.

I said, “Yeah, you don’t remember me from last class?”

He shot me a puzzled look, paused a couple beats and nodded. “Oh, yeah . . . okay then.”

Weeks later, he spotted me in the Student Union and said to sit.

“Didn’t you hand in a story about three teenage boys who hide out at some whorehouse?”

I said I did.

“I really like that story,” he said. “But level with me. You aren’t supposed to be in that class, are you?”

“I don’t guess I am.”

A grin big as a watermelon slice creased his face. “Hell, I knew that. But I let you stay because I liked your moxie. You don’t get far in this world without moxie.”

The [third] most important lesson I learned from Vonnegut: Moxie will open doors.

Writers who think cynically that connections are the sole key to publishing are naïve.

Publishers are in business. They want their business to thrive. They are not going to publish something they don’t think will sell or have some future promise, or that will damage their reputations. Redbook wouldn’t have bought Sandroff’s story if it were poorly written or didn’t serve their readers.

When connections work, it’s because the “project,” as they say in the publishing industry, is a good fit. All things being equal, the endorsement of a well-connected person may certainly boost a piece of work into being chosen over a competitor. Same thing is true about jobs. So yes, connections can be helpful. Sometimes instrumental. Sometimes detrimental. With or without them, you have to do your best work.

Here are two examples from Vonnegut’s career: Kurt met Knox Burger at Cornell, and reconnected when he submitted a story to Collier’s magazine, where Knox worked as an assistant editor. Knox rejected the story, commenting, “This is a little sententious for us.”

Eventually, Knox Burger became instrumental in Vonnegut’s early publishing career as an editor and friend, publishing Vonnegut’s first short story and as an editor at a publishing house, his first short story collection, Canary in a Cat House, and editing Mother Night.

The publisher Sam Lawrence was swayed by Vonnegut’s dictionary review to pursue Kurt Vonnegut with a three-book contract.

Possibly it helped that Vonnegut happened to mention Bennett Cerf, Lawrence’s former boss, in the review—though that isn’t in the realm of “connection” or even intention, but the Fairy Godmother’s “if the accident will.” If Kurt’s review had been clunky, referring to Cerf would have signified nothing.

In the literary magazine world, the same thing holds true. We at the Bellevue Literary Review avoid that kind of impropriety like the plague, sometimes to our detriment. Significant prize money was withdrawn after we did not publish a piece by the famous, wealthy sponsor of it. We have even rejected a submission by someone who had been a contest judge for us. All that matters to us as editors is the piece of writing and the balance in the current issue under consideration.

Moxie has limits. So does being well connected.

The playwright-narrator of Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night is slipped a question in the prison yard from Adolf Eichmann.

“Do you think a literary agent is absolutely necessary?” The note was signed by Eichmann.

My reply was this: “For book club and movie sales in the United States of America, absolutely.”

Ten years after borrowing his paper route money, Mark Vonnegut writes, his father “went from being poor to being famous and rich in the blink of an eye.” During the blink, Kurt told an interviewer,

I am frankly embarrassed by the money. Success makes you feel the world has gone mad. When you are successful, you discover that you can publish almost anything, and the response to that is to simply stop writing. That is why I’m looking for a new line of work.

Catapulting from relative obscurity to limelight’s blinding blaze was certainly disconcerting. Fame is destabilizing. Kurt confided his worry about John Irving at the time Irving was becoming well known, in the early ’80s. “At least when it happened to me, I was already in my forties,” Kurt said.

People confuse your personhood with your persona. They fear you, demand things of you, project and expect.

At a party honoring Vonnegut after a reading at a university, no one, he told me at about the same time, came up and spoke to him or his wife Jill. Everyone was too timid.

Joseph Shipley, an Indianapolis native, related this anecdote as I was assisting the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library table at the Brooklyn Book Festival one recent September. As a sophomore in high school, just after reading Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, he passed Kurt Vonnegut himself on the street one fall day in downtown Indianapolis.

“I know you!” Joe blurted.

“No, you don’t,” Kurt replied.

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.”

It took quite a bit of getting used to, by all parties.

Later in his life, Kurt told Mark that he was proud of restoring the family fortune.

In doing so, Kurt made his mother’s biggest dream come true.

Success enabled Vonnegut to expand creatively. It allowed him to participate in and influence society in ways impossible without the power of that position—giving speeches, lending his voice to social causes. He achieved his goal of being a good citizen, and then some.

Don’t worry. You probably won’t have to endure the downsides of fame and fortune.

But you can emulate the upsides.

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