The Greatest Life Advice from Kurt Vonnegut


Today would have been the great Kurt Vonnegut’s 90th birthday. The author, much beloved for his black humor, satirical bent, and frank take on the universe, has continued to influence and inspire writers and other humans since his death in 2007, and we figure will keep doing so for quite a while yet. To that end, we’ve compiled a list of the man’s greatest life advice — from the pithy to the complex, from the goofy to the plainly serious. In addition, we’d like to take this opportunity to point out two excellent new books that have been released recently: Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, a fat and elucidating volume of the author’s correspondence, and We Are What We Pretend To Be , which pairs Vonnegut’s first and last writings with commentary by his daughter, a definite must for any fan. After the jump, bask in some essential life advice from one of our most celebrated authors — and if we missed your favorite missive, be sure to add it to our list in the comments. Happy birthday, Mr. Vonnegut. So it goes.

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'” — “Knowing What’s Nice,” an essay from In These Times, 2003

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” — “Thoughts of a Free Thinker” commencement address, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, 1974

“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” — God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

“I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.” — “Self Interview” with The Paris Review .

“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” — A Man Without a Country

“I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.” — “The Noodle Factory,” speech given at the dedication of the Shain Library at Connecticut College, New London

“We must be careful about what we pretend to be.” — Mother Night

“If you want to really hurt you parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” — A Man Without a Country

“Make love when you can. It’s good for you.” — Mother Night

“Now, you can say your Daddy is right and the other little child’s Daddy is wrong, but the universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.” — The Sirens of Titan

“Human beings will be happier — not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie — but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia.” — Playboy interview, 1973

“We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.” — A Man Without a Country

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.” — Cat’s Cradle

“The arts put man at the center of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage — and his children, and his cities, too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still — I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation of appreciation of art.” — Bennington College commencement address, 1970

“Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go around looking for it, and I think it can be poisonous. I wish people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, ‘Please-a little less love, and a little more common decency.” — Slapstick

“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.” — Cat’s Cradle

“There is no order in the world around us, we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead. It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.” — Breakfast of Champions

“If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you’re a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.” — Player Piano

And of course, Vonnegut’s much-repeated 8 tips for good short stories:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. 2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. 3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. 4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action. 5. Start as close to the end as possible. 6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of. 7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. 8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.