Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Kurt Vonnegut & "The Art of the Term Paper"

It would be the English student's dream and nightmare: writing a term paper for Kurt Vonnegut. That's the challenge faced by Suzanne McConnell and other students who studied with Vonnegut at the Iowa Writer's Workshop in his "Form of Fiction" class. McConnell apparently saved one of her assignment sheets from the class - I mean, who wouldn't? - and it's not surprising the piece is a work of art unto itself. This approach to school - where the assignment is more than an assignment - is captured in a new collection of the writer's letters: Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield. The actual assignment is featured in Slate.com this week.

As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all ...” Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows. Since there are eighty of you, and since I do not wish to go blind or kill somebody, about twenty pages from each of you should do neatly. Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.

What a joy it would be to be assigned work in such a manner.  And, as a teacher, I occasionally see the assigning as a craft in itself - though not with this type of poetry.  Then again, I'm still learning and growing as a teacher, and this approach seems like a wonderful gift of a new professional goal. Of course, Rodney Dangerfield theorized that Kurt Vonnegut may not know a thing about writing ... or about himself.

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