Kurt Vonnegut's Writing Style & Themes

Instructor: Adrienne Nicholson
Kurt Vonnegut is both an accomplished American author, as well as educator in the nuances of writing. This lesson will examine his own writing style through his ruminations on writing, as well as the common themes in his works.

On Writing Style

Widely regarded by experts and novices alike, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a famous article titled How to Write With Style in which he offered readers a lesson in writing. His first and most important tip is for the blossoming author to write about something they care about.

This simple suggestion, according to Vonnegut, does not only relate to a novel but also in ''A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do''. The point is that the subject of whatever it is you choose to write about should be one with meaning to you.

Vonnegut's Style

Kurt Vonnegut's own style of writing tends to be minimalist and dry, utilizing short sentences and avoiding wordy run-ons. His lessons on writing reflect his own style of crafting stories.

Simplicity in language is something highly regarded by Vonnegut. He believed that simplicity is a lost art, one that when utilized correctly could convey every emotion in human language in only a few words.

He likened this skill to William Shakespeare and James Joyce, who with only simple words and phrases, could break the hearts of their readers or send them into a metaphysical rabbit hole. When Shakespeare's Hamlet famously utters, ''To be or not to be'', his use of words no longer than three letters still resounds with readers today as one of the most meaningful and powerful questions.

Shakespeare and Joyce, to continue with Vonnegut's own examples, mastered their own voice. They wrote in a voice they were familiar with as children to best get their message across.

Vonnegut describes himself in contrast to the musical beauty of some other more geographically blessed authors. He stated: ''I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.''

Themes in Vonnegut's Works

Vonnegut centers much of his work around three general concepts: Pacifism, social equality and the need for common decency. He targets dehumanization through technology, sexuality and violence as his main villains.

Vonnegut wrote many of his most famous works during an unforgiving period in American history, following World War II and during the conflicts in Vietnam and Korea. He fought in World War II and became a POW in Dresden where he witnessed the allies firebombing the city, killing an estimated 30,000 people.

Slaughterhouse-five book cover

It was his experience as a POW that gave him the inspiration for his famous novel Slaughterhouse Five. He wanted to write about his experience as a prisoner of war but grappled with how to portray the parts he did not see firsthand, deciding to venture into science fiction to explore his theme of war.

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