Bad advice from Kurt Vonnegut

January 23, 2011

Tags: family, gender, parenting, Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, persona, writing

Readers of this blog (and friends) will know my mother as the person whose ideas about parenting included reading booze-drenched modernist classics to me when I was eleven. So, it will not come as a surprise to anyone that when I was a few years older than that, she dropped me off at a Kurt Vonnegut reading while she went to a lecture in another part of town. I was a big Vonnegut fan at the time and thrilled to be seeing him.

I’d spent an entire summer lying on the couch with the headphones on reading his books. Though I had not survived the bombing of Dresden, I felt that, like Billy Pilgrim, I’d become “unstuck in time.” When Jehovah’s Witnesses came to our door to discuss damnation I would tell them that I was a “Bokonist” the religion practiced by the characters in Cat’s Cradle. And it goes without saying that Kilgore Trout’s “career” as a washed up homeless science fiction writer was one to which I very seriously aspired.

But the biggest influence Vonnegut exacted over me was at this reading, where he told the students in the audience they didn’t need to go to school and could just as well drop out.

It was fantastic! I felt like a boulder had been pushed off the hole I was buried in, and light was streaming down upon me. I was so excited I could actually feel the hair on my neck stand up. It was so simple. I didn’t have to go to school, I could just walk away. I’d been entertaining the thought since kindergarten, but Kurt Vonnegut was the first adult I’d heard emphatically state that school was entirely unrelated to success. And he was obviously more successful than anyone I knew. My stupid parents, who grew up poor, seemed to think school was the reason our family had things like food and a house and a car. But really they should have been thinking about how school made them boring automatons who had to dress up for work, not famous writers like Kurt Vonnegut who could obviously wear whatever the hell he wanted and never comb his hair or shave.

“Now I really wish I’d gone to that talk with you,” my mother said yesterday when I asked if she remembered it. “But really, why the hell would you have listened to any of that?”

Good question. I am certain that I was constitutionally incapable of going to school. And I am also certain that the kind of reading I did as a kid created a specific kind of mental model that made me prone to dropping out. Vonnegut was just in the right place at the right time to solidify my plan.

My mother went on to describe Vonnegut as a “wild-eyed guy with a scruffy mustache,” and then pointed out a number of suspect role models I’d had since childhood, the majority of them fictional, including: Oscar from the Odd Couple, Eliot Vereker, Jake Barnes, and one unfortunate autumn, the very real Hunter S. Thompson and Jean Paul Sartre which allowed me to combine the concept of “existence preceding essence” with some pretty anti-social behavior.

Notice something about these idols? Not a lady in the mix.
And it seems no coincidence that the lives of men in these eras had more than a little in common with the lives of children. A kind of freedom that leaves unseen others to pick up and provide care and progeny. They were not such far-fetched imaginary peers for a middle schooler.

While Kurt was freeing me from the prison of academia, my mother was at an Adrienne Rich lecture. While I was planning my escape from education and middle class culture, my mother was working her ass off to get the degree she’d missed because she was raising three kids and supporting the idealistic career of her husband. While I was fighting every second to remain a genderless brain on a stick, my mother was living as a smart, uneducated woman in a small conservative place with few opportunities.

It didn’t take a genius to see that growing up to be a real woman in the real world might be worse than growing up to be Kilgore Trout.

It was just as I quit high school and was living on my own that my mother gave me Joan Didion to read. Specifically an essay about Haight Ashbury. About how the convergence of political events and ideologies, lifestyle, and aspirational living caused a generation to neglect their children; caused their children to be precocious, lost, at risk for various kinds of violence, accidents, and failures. And caused women to conceive of themselves as liberated while giving up their most basic freedoms.

“You will really like this,” she said simply. “It made me think of you.”

My mother has not always been there for me. As a woman coming of age when she did, she was not always there for herself. But without fail she gathered the literary angels that helped me think and write and live.

“Damn right, toots,” she said when I thanked her. “I knew what I was doing.”


  1. January 24, 2011 12:14 AM EST
    ahhh- to be privy to the misconceptions of our imaginations... only mammas and pappas truly get to see us unearth our liberating perception of how life SHOULD be and how WE can do it better then them... and sooner or later reality catches up, running in a stiff fashion, all out of breath, and we see the language our parents spoke... it really wasn't so bad, was it??
    - Cody Ann
  2. January 24, 2011 12:45 AM EST
    I still can't think of another author who is simultaneously so good and so depressing (for me, at least). Maybe David Foster Wallace....

    Also something about the admission essay for the school of hard knocks seemed a little overwhelming...Not that Colgate prepared me for life in any meaningful, let alone helpful, kind of way....
    - mr brutvan
  3. January 24, 2011 9:49 AM EST
    Ha. I have not heard the Vonnegut story before. I can see how clear and logical it must have been in your mind at the time. I wonder how things would have been different if it had been another 'role model' telling you to drop out. Say,,,
    - Charles Hale
  4. January 24, 2011 8:09 PM EST

    So this random blog appears on my Google Reader with a title about bad advice Kurt Vonnegut. I click and I start reading it. Halfway in, and I'm suddenly reminiscing about my High School days, watching Slaughterhouse-Five (on VHS?) at my Vonnegut obsessed friend's house. I seem to remember her forcing a dogged-eared paperback of something he wrote into my hand, that became required reading.

    It's not until I was 75% of the way in, that I had to scroll up the top of the website and see who wrote it.

    Small world.
    - Michael Gray
  5. January 24, 2011 8:11 PM EST
    I was there with you at that lecture. I must have subliminally picked up on it because though I never thought I would not go to college, I went to art schools and treated them as trade schools (which they should be), threw myself into photography and performance art and had fantasies of dropping out to be a photographer for the Times Picayune in New Orleans even though i had never set foot there. Before that lecture I am sure I never thought of school as bad, except for listening to The Wall, which I think your mom bought you as well, right? Damn Vonnegut. I'd have been a wealthy podiatrist or or a museum curator in Vermont for sure if it weren't for him.... thanks for making me remember.
    - Chelle Manic
  6. January 24, 2011 8:20 PM EST
    Refreshing essay in contrast to the "I remember food stamps and bar tending" things. We love to read that freedom of self and ownership of identity have been accomplished, no ... conquered! Let's have it! We know the warm beds of malaise and apathy got us nowhere. Our teenage selves forged prisons that sentenced us to 25 years to life of pretending that 'counterculture' and 'alternativism' made us different from our parents. When all along, keeping your head down and working just as hard as you fucking can, then working some more was the way out. 'Way out, man'
    - tommyfritz
  7. January 25, 2011 9:22 AM EST
    Cara, Your Vonnegut essay is amazing.... you are so lucky that you were given great books so early in life, and the opportunity to hear Vonnegut speak. But I think you were destined to become a fabulous writer whether you finished school or not. In your case his bad advice seems not to have done you any harm. You worked your butt off writing, and you educated yourself with the things you read.
    - annie
  8. January 25, 2011 1:19 PM EST
    Thanks everyone! Chelle, I am really glad it turned out the way it did. Thank god Vonnegut was there to prevent you from going to medical school. I remember that decision and I was always proud of you. Tommy-I couldn't have said it better. Onward.
    - Cara Hoffman
  9. January 25, 2011 9:00 PM EST
    You're my favorite wild eyed mustacheless writer.Always have been.
    - mom
  10. February 1, 2011 6:37 PM EST
    It is always a grand idea to follow the advice of an ancient six foot nine glassy eyed alcoholic novelists especially if they tell you to quit school and follow the life to the dark side of the moon. God knows where it will lead you- but at least it is an escape plan. Kurt V was too drunk and his singular story too bitter-sweet- for me, But the world loved him for it.
    - joe schmidbauer
  11. February 1, 2011 10:35 PM EST
    Joe--You will recall the second time I dropped out of school I was following YOUR advice. I remember it distinctly, sitting in your kitchen and happily announcing that I was done for good, that I couldn't do it with a kid. And you said: "Are you ***ing crazy? You're supposed to go in there and intellectually beat the crap out of those people! Not run away!" Turned out working for you was the best undergraduate education a girl could ever get.
    - Cara Hoffman