Suzanne McConnell recently wrote in The Brooklyn Rail about her experiences as Kurt Vonnegut's student at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in the mid-60s.
In a Form of Fiction class (literature classes geared towards examining fiction from a writer's perspective, comprised of about eighty students), Kurt taught a Chekhov story. I can’t remember the name of it. I didn’t quite understand the point, since nothing much happened. An adolescent girl is in love with this boy and that boy and another; she points at a little dog, as I recall, or maybe something else, and laughs. That’s all. There’s no conflict, no dramatic turning point or change. Kurt pointed out that she has no words for the sheer joy of being young, ripe with life, her own juiciness, and the promise of romance. Her inarticulate feelings spill into laughter at something innocuous. That’s what happened in the story. His absolute delight in that girl’s joy of feeling herself so alive was so encouraging of delight. Kurt’s enchantment taught me that such moments are nothing to sneeze at. They’re worth a story.
In that class, among Kurt’s several assignments, was one to write a four-page essay on “the mechanical and spiritual limitations…imposed by the short story as compared with the novel.” Though a “grotesque and stupid thing to do,” he wrote, another was to describe in less than twenty-five words the plot of four books we’d read, then discuss “the usefulness or uselessness of plots” to the writer and reader.
He composed the assignment playfully, in letter form, beginning “Dear Gus.” I wrote my paper likewise, from the point of view of a smart but airhead-sounding woman writing letters to her friend about the war ravaging her town between those favoring the short story and those on the side of novelists; her second letter dissected plots, and so on. “Full of life, Suzanne, and that’s all I ever ask of anyone.” He scrawled a fat A.
Looking at his assignments now, I see that is what he asked. They were designed to teach something much more than whatever I thought then he was teaching about writing. He was teaching us to do our own thinking, to find out who we were, what we loved, abhorred, what set off our tripwires, what tripped up our hearts.
To the the rest, - and you should you should - click here.
(Photo of Vonnegut is by Loree Rackstraw.)