Many of you will know that Kurt Vonnegut is my all-time favorite writer. I love absolutely every aspect of his now-departed being: I love his silliness (ting-a-ling), his seriousness (why, why, why?), even his physical presence. He was a gangling man, tall and thin, with big bug eyes, a long nose and a head full of big fat curls that were grey from the first day I read him, and long before that, of course. Of all the writers I have ever read, he has come closest to my understanding of Gandhi’s satyagraha – absolute truth – and he has also inspired me more than any other to put words onto paper. It is because of Vonnegut that I understand the two notions around fiction – that it is more honest than fact, and that fact is much stranger than fiction quite a lot of the time.
Vonnegut never prepared for a career in writing great novels. In his introduction to a collection of (absolutely brilliant) short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, he wrote,
“I have been a writer since 1949. I am self-taught. I have no theories about writing that might help others. When I write I simply become what I seemingly must become…All that borrowed meat does the writing.”
In point of fact he studied Chemistry, fought in WWII, and worked as a car salesman for a number of years before finding his calling. He also, in some other introduction – I forget which one now, advises would-be writers and all people everywhere to do one thing: get a degree in Physics.
He also advises those who wish to write to do just that: write. Every day. It’s the one bit of advice I can remember him offering amidst the broken-hearted hilarity and self-deprecation that defined most of his personal essays and introductions. I have been trying to remind myself to do just that since I started this writing endeavor, although not exclusively on this blog…I’d hate to bore you with the all of the useless tripe that clogs my brain 90% of the time. But I write in my journal, try to pluck out a short story now and again, and of course press on with the magazine pitches and so forth. The past couple of weeks I’ve not done my best, but then I’ve had a lot on my plate.
Back and forth on one train and then another, Saint-Tropez – Le Puy – Zurich – Le Puy – Zurich – Le Puy, all in less than a month. Looking after two incredible and very high-maintenance youngsters for about half of the time I wasn’t traveling, writing wasn’t the first priority on my to-do list. And then getting back home and unpacking, I found myself stuck for words, not to mention overwhelmed with the constant interruption of the million little tasks that come with lots of travel and normal life (obligatory visit to immigration, mother-in-law’s surprise 70th birthday party, etc). And now I’ve really given it all a new twist.
Because I realized that writing may one day pay my bills, but not today. So I decided I needed to consider my options. And in a country where I’m unable to speak the language, I have two options when it comes to earning an income: Work for clients outside of that country – in my case, write – or, alternatively, teach my own language. In this case, and. That is, I intend to keep up the writing thing…I’ve grown rather fond of the idea of doing this proper-like and with a modicum of success. But I’m also studying for the TEFL, or Teaching English as a Foreign Language certification. Ironically, the French government has also informed me that I must complete 250 hours of French study, so while I’m learning how to teach English to French (and possibly Romany) students, I’ll also be an English-speaking student of French, which I find endlessly amusing.
In the past 17 months, since this whole adventure began, I’ve not once thought, I get this. I know what I’m doing. Whether or not that’s a good thing is anybody’s guess, but I think Mr. Vonnegut would be proud. He didn’t just teach me about writing – he drew my attention to the moral compass that sat inside of me, too frustrated in this imperfect world to articulate itself. He taught me to laugh at people who fall down, to laugh at life’s cruel turns, and most importantly to laugh at myself. And he taught me that I can teach myself to “become what I seemingly must become.” Maybe one of these days, that’ll be a bona fide writer. In the meantime, I’ll keep on writing.