Monday, November 16, 2015

A Writer's Education at General Electric: Kurt Vonnegut Breaks Through

Every writer knows he should read, and read hungrily, opportunistically, always looking for ways to enhance or perfect his craft. Stephen King has said in On Writing that a writer must read constantly, and read everything, to get a feel for language in many circumstances. Not just various genres of fiction writing, but also user manuals, religious texts, science articles, and on and on.

credit: Edie Vonnegut
A writer is always listening, watching, taking in details and wondering about whether or not the situation or sentence, thought or happenstance might make a good story, or be integrated into a good story.

Norman Mailer said he characterized a writer as someone who, just thinking about his writing space, and upon seeing his typewriter, salivates at the thought of sitting down to it. That is his space, and it's for his cherished writing.

Mailer took seven years to write Harlot's Ghost. He told KCRW's  Michael Silverblatt in 1991 that he constantly read books about the CIA, and sometimes took months off from writing just to absorb enough information to write the next chapter. For anybody who has read Harlot's Ghost, it's apparent just how much of the Company's internal operations, attitude, and exploits Mailer absorbed.

If Mailer educated himself through voracious reading about his subject, Kurt Vonnegut got his education in General Electric, where he was writing press releases for some of the newest whiz bang inventions and technological ideas on the planet:
...Kurt, was spending every day at GE writing press releases and features about the fabulous new world that science and technology were creating. But at night and on weekends, he was following his secret ambition to write, cranking out romances and adventure stories for popular magazines. His only reward was a huge stack of rejection slips. 
One day, Kurt had an idea for a new kind of story. He would write about what he was seeing at GE. He would show a scientist facing same ethical dilemma Bernard faced: how responsible was he, as a scientist, for preventing the weaponizing of his inventions? Kurt’s first successful story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect” sold to Colliers in late 1949. 
Kurt wrote a press release about ultrasonics—the use of high frequency sound waves in industry, medicine, and research. Then he wrote “The Euphio Question,” about the invention of a sound wave that, played over the radio, causes everyone to quit whatever they are doing and bliss out. Again, he probes the moral issues raised by a new technology. 
In fact, GE’s archives hold many of the source materials for early Kurt Vonnegut stories—the deer that got into the factory, the metallurgist who loved model trains, the walking, talking refrigerator that sold appliances, the visit to GE of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, destined to be fictionalized as the Shah of Bratpuhr in Player Piano. Asked years later why he had chosen to write science fiction in his early days, Kurt replied “There was no avoiding it, since the General Electric Company WAS science fiction.” (from FSG's Work In Progress newsletter)
Vonnegut said more than once that the difference between himself and other writers was that he actually knew how his dishwasher worked. That's a profound statement. The insights he would have in any situation compared to someone who has no mechanical or technological understanding is as similar as night and day. Because of his experiences in GE and in World War II, Vonnegut's brain stem had unique ways to process information.

Most of us writers scramble to get MFAs these days. To learn to write better. To get a slip of paper to prove we're writers. But that isn't always the best way to get educated. Ishmael's Harvard and his Yale was the whaling ship (and I suspect it was Melville's as well). Kerouac's college was hitching rides across America and collecting dimes in San Francisco to buy the cheapest jug of wine he could find, pounding it on the table while Allen Ginsburg read "Howl", and cheering him on with a hearty, "Go, go, go!"

Writers must be willing to absorb their surroundings and take inspiration from whatever situation in which they find themselves ensnared. The fast food job. The retail manager. The social worker. The unemployed. It's all rich with experience and can be tailored into a vibrant story setting, all the better by which to educate others through a personal vision of humanity crafted into story.

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