"Spiritually pooping": Kurt Vonnegut on his daily routine as a novelist/teacher

"I needed the money."

Welcome to the first issue of Subtle Maneuvers! For more about this newsletter, read the intro post.


Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007)

The American writer held down a variety of day jobs before finally achieving success as a novelist around the time of his 45th birthday. He worked in public relations for General Electric, tried inventing a board game, lasted one day as a writer for Sports Illustrated, and managed a Saab dealership on Cape Cod (his son later called him “the world’s worst car salesman”). In 1965, Vonnegut accepted a teaching job at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. “I needed the money,” he wrote later. “I needed the stimulation. I needed the change in scene . . . It turned out to be a very bright thing for me to do. Suddenly writing seemed very important again.” The Workshop was a friendly environment for a writer: The teaching load was relatively light, and teachers were expected to be working on their own writing on the side. Shortly after arriving in Iowa City, Vonnegut wrote a letter to his wife describing his schedule:

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/ fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.

After two years at the Writer’s Workshop, Vonnegut finally got his big break, in the form of a three-book contract and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was able to pursue writing full-time. Although he always had good things to say about his time in Iowa City, he didn’t miss teaching. “It is spiritually pooping to care desperately about student work that probably isn’t worth caring about,” he said.

Quotes from: Dan Wakefield, ed., Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (New York: Delacorte Press, 2012).

Kurt Vonnegut in 1972


ROUTINE EXAMINATION

Having trouble finding time for a creative project alongside your other daily obligations? Or feeling stuck, blocked, or discouraged during the time you do have? Email your dilemma to subtlemaneuvers@substack.com (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into the work habits of hundreds of writers and artists.

Questions and answers will be published in future issues of the newsletter. Questions may be edited for length and clarity; emailers will be by identified by first name only, or by a pseudonym.


THE CHEMICAL LIFE ☕

WRIGGLING THROUGH

This newsletter is free, but you can support me by buying my books, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work and Daily Rituals: Women at Work. Thanks!