Writing Routines

Kurt Vonnegut’s Writing Routine: “It just turned out that I could write better than a lot of other people.”

Kurt Vonnegut was an American writer, best-known for his breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut published 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five nonfiction works over his 50 year career.

It just turned out that I could write better than a lot of other people. Each person has something he can do easily and can’t imagine why everybody else is having so much trouble doing it. In my case, it was writing.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Playboy interview 1973

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By the time the 1960s rolled around, Kurt Vonnegut had been writing for over 20 years. Born and raised in Indianapolis on November 11, 1922, Vonnegut attended Shortridge High School where he became a co-editor of the school newspaper, The Shortridge Echo. It was there that he discovered he had a natural talent for writing.

In 1943, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Vonnegut enlisted in the Army and was sent to Europe as an intelligence scout with the 106th Infantry Division. He fought and was captured at the Battle of the Bulge. While held as a prisoner at Dresden, Vonnegut managed to survive an Allied bombing that destroyed most of the city by hiding in a meat locker three stories underground. The author’s experience here would influence much of his later writing.

After his discharge from the Army, Vonnegut returned to Indianapolis and married his high school sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox. He began working as a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago, before transitioning to General Electric (GE) as a technical writer. While working at GE, Vonnegut published his first writing piece, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” in the February 11, 1950 issue of Collier’s magazine. Shortly after, Vonnegut quit his job at GE and moved his family to Cape Cod, Massachusetts to pursue writing full-time.

Over the next few years, Vonnegut would publish several books (his debut Player Piano came out in 1952) and countless short stories, but he wasn’t able to break through with any significant commercial success. In 1958, Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, passed away from cancer two days after her husband was killed in a train accident. With his growing family, a struggling career and the added responsibility of taking care of his bereaved nephews, Vonnegut was close to giving up his writing.

Kurt Vonnegut’s daily writing routine

It was around this time that he received an offer for a teaching job at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “I had gone broke, was out of print and had a lot of kids, so I needed the job most desperately,” he wrote later in The New York Times. “I would later say of Paul Engle, who not only ran but personified and electrified the workshop for many decades, ‘The Coast Guard should give him a medal for all the drowning professional writers whose lives he’s saved.’”

After spending almost two years at the workshop, Vonnegut published his sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, which would transform him into a literary star. It was the writer’s first novel to become a New York Times bestseller, staying on the list for 16 weeks, and was also nominated for the Nebula Award and Hugo Award.

In Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, a collection of the author’s correspondence over a 60-year period, readers will find a letter Vonnegut wrote to his wife, who remained in Cape Cod with their family, while he was teaching in Iowa.

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.

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 30, 2012

In a 1969 interview with Robert Taylor for Boston Globe Magazine, Vonnegut spoke briefly about his daily routine, which by that time, was more centred around writing.

I get up at 7:30 and work four hours a day. Nine to twelve in the morning, five to six in the evening. Businessmen would achieve better results if they studied human metabolism. No one works well eight hours a day. No one ought to work more than four hours. 

Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut | Kurt Vonnegut; William Rodney Allen

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