15 Kurt Vonnegut Quotes About Writers and Writing

Oliver Morris/Getty Images
Oliver Morris/Getty Images / Oliver Morris/Getty Images

As affable and loquacious as he was, Kurt Vonnegut disliked interviews. In Palm Sunday, he mentions his distaste for the process itself, of being subjected to an interviewer's desperate attempts at carving open his brain in order to mine it for ideas.

Considering his objections, we are rather lucky that Kurt Vonnegut still went under the interviewer's knife from time to time, for few people have ever had as many interesting things to say as he did. His insights into writing were especially valuable, sage, and practical. Here are 15 funny and wise examples.

1. “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.”

—To Robert Taylor. Boston Globe Magazine. July 20, 1969.

2. “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

—To the Paris Review. Spring 1977.

3. “Nothing ever really ends. That’s the horrible part of being in the short-story business—you have to be a real expert on ends. Nothing in real life ends. ‘Millicent at last understands.’ Nobody ever understands.”

—To Mel Gussow. The New York Times. October 6, 1970.

4. “If you want to make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.”

—To the Paris Review. Spring 1977.

5. “You can’t write novels without a touch of paranoia. I’m paranoid as an act of good citizenship, concerned about what the powerful people are up to.”

—To Israel Shenker. The New York Times. March 21, 1969.

6. “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.”

—To the Paris Review. Spring 1977.

7. “The reason novels were so thick for so long was that people had so much time to kill. I do not furnish transportation for my characters; I do not move them from one room to another; I do not send them up the stairs; they do not get dressed in the mornings; they do not put the ignition key in the lock, and turn on the engine, and let it warm up and look at all the gauges, and put the car in reverse, and back out, and drive to the filling station, and ask the guy about the weather.”

—To Joe David Bellamy and John Casey. From The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers.

8. “My reason for writing is unfortunately in line with Hitler’s and Stalin’s: I think writers should serve their society.”

—To Publishers Weekly. March 22, 1971.

9. “Jokes are efficient things and they must be as carefully constructed as mouse traps. And so for me to write a page of a novel is a very slow business, because the whole thing has to be rigged in order to snap at the end. My books are essentially mosaics, thousands and thousands of tiny little chips all glued together, and each chip is this thing I learned to do—this thing I learned to make as a child—which is a little joke.”

—To Frank McLaughlin. Media and Methods. May 1973.

10. “I try to keep deep love out of my stories because, once that particular subject comes up, it is almost impossible to talk about anything else. Readers don’t want to hear about anything else. They go gaga about love. If a lover in a story wins his true love, that’s the end of the tale, even if World War III is about to begin, and the sky is black with flying saucers.”

—To the Paris Review. Spring 1977.

11. “I suppose that every writer is a gadfly; the crude term that every writer would like to do is mind-f**king. It’s to get into somebody else’s head. In a Bible-belt area like here it would be a felony to mind-f**k somebody.”

—To Hank Nuwer. South Carolina Review. Spring 1987.

12. “Novel writing doesn’t breed serenity. It is lying, you know, and the novelist has to spend a lot of time during the course of his writing worrying about whether he is going to get away with his lies. If he fails to, his novel isn’t going to work.”

—To Charles Reilly. College Literature. 1980.

13. “People need good lies. There are too many bad ones.”

—To Wilfred Sheed. LIFE. September 12, 1969.

14. “I like everything there is about being a writer except the way my neighbors treat me. Because I honor them for what they are, and they really do find me irrelevant on Cape Cod. There’s my state representative. I campaigned for him, and he got drunk one night and came over and said, ‘You know, I can’t understand a word you write and neither can any of your neighbors…so why don’t you change your style, so why not write something people like?’ He was just telling me for my own good. He was a former English major at Brown.”

—To Joe David Bellamy and John Casey. From The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers.

15. “Writers get a nice break in one way, at least: They can treat their mental illnesses every day.”

—To Playboy. July 1973.

Additional Sources: Allen, William Rodney (Ed.). (1988). Conversations With Kurt Vonnegut. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.

This piece originally ran in 2015 and has been updated for 2021.

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