Thanks, Kurt Vonnegut: Why We Do Art

Thanks, Kurt Vonnegut: Why We Do Art

By Susan B. Apel

Kurt Vonnegut’s words suddenly intruded into my half-formed thoughts about why I write. I have been creating and submitting some flash nonfiction to literary journals, reading the formulaic and occasionally flattering, or so I choose to think, rejection letters. Blogging, here. Blogging elsewhere, about death cafes and aging in place, local theater, art in Boston. Think, write, rewrite, submit. Repeat.

Why write? It is a question that has stumped me some, from an early beginning. As a child, I once won a short story contest for something called Shinbone and the Giant, and later, another contest for a really sentimental piece about a child who lost her father in a local mining accident. For a ten year old, very cool I thought, fiction-based-on-fact. Later, I published scholarly articles in law reviews and plunked down briefs in courtrooms. I loved seeing my name in print, but as stubbornly awful as writing can sometimes be, I have always enjoyed the process of creating through the written word.

Just as my thoughts were coalescing around all of this, I was pre-empted by the observations of no less than Kurt Vonnegut. According to a story circulating online, as part of a school project, each child had to write a letter to a favorite author; one child chose Mr. Vonnegut. He responded, charmingly. His advice to the entire class was this: “Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.” He then exhorted the children to “do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny . . .picture. . .Dance home after school, and sing in the shower. . .Make a face in your mashed potatoes. . .” He even told them to write a poem and then rip it up. “You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced something, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”

As if advice from Kurt Vonnegut were not enough, I harkened back to a paper I wrote in college on Aristotle’s definition of art. Long after I have forgotten much, this has remained. (And if I have not gotten Aristotle quite right, no matter; I am prepared to take credit for my own interpretation even if inaccurate. But if you are picky, just skip to the next paragraph.) Aristotle said that the soul of art is conception, when the artist thinks about what she is going to do, finds and nurtures an idea. A friend of mine used to call this phase “the noodling hours.” Second to conception is the executing of the idea, translating it via a chosen medium: paint, or clay, or Microsoft Word. Then there is the final product: the painting, the sculpture, or the essay itself. Not to diss the fingers to keyboard, or the actual printed, dare I say published, word, but it’s the concept that’s the thing.

And doesn’t Kurt Vonnegut know it! Certainly I write out of a rabid desire to communicate, the sharing of an idea. The process of choosing the exact word, then revising it with a better one, is satisfying. And the final product is none too shabby in my estimation, for along with my ten-year-old self, I still love to see my name in print. As a bonus, electronic media add the gloss of immortality to any published piece. (Probably not, given its pre-computer age birth, but there is the teensiest possibility that Shinbone is still kicking around somewhere in the ether and not just in a box from my mother’s basement. I pause as I consider whether I would hope this to be true of that particular piece.)

But the conception, the notion of finding something to say is where the real fun lives. As rewarding as composing, publishing, and then reading one’s own work may be, I am really drunk on the noodling, the ideas as they rattle through my brain for the week, or month, or years before I actually put words on paper or screen. Kurt has got it right; whether anyone reads it (though, to be truthful, I hope someone does) in his words, I am nurturing and experiencing something, making my soul grow, and for that alone, I am experiencing glorious reward.

How else to explain the joy of connecting in a single blog post the stories I wrote as a child, my flash nonfiction and rejection letters, Aristotle’s definition of art, and Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to school children?

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