These High Schoolers Wrote Letters to Kurt Vonnegut. This Is What They Got in Response.

Your homework assignment from a famous novelist: Make art. Then destroy it.

december-january-WOLI-2017The Voorhes for Reader's Digest

In 2006, a New York City English teacher named Ms. Lockwood asked her students to write to their favorite author and persuade him or her to visit the school. Five of those pupils chose novelist Kurt Vonnegut. Though he never made the trip to Xavier High School, Vonnegut did respond to the students with the following letter. He was the only author to reply.

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs. Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer, and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances anymore because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art—music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage—no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Practice any art, however well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to find out what’s inside you.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower, and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

[pullquote] Practice any art, however well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to find out what’s inside you. [/pullquote]

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six-line poem about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is the author of 14 novels, including Slaughterhouse-Five, consistently rated one of the 100 best English-language books of the 20th century.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest