This is the first post in a new series, called 'The Book That...'. In this series, we ask writers to tell us about a book that's influenced their writing life. First cab off the rank is Patrick Lenton, talking Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
When I was in the third year of my Creative Writing degree, boy howdy had I learnt a lot. I'd learnt about the proper usage of semi-colons, I'd learnt about insane French literary movements and who I liked more between Camus and Sartre (Team Camus, represent!). But I hadn't yet learnt what kind of writer I wanted to be. I feel like I'd learnt how to write, but not yet how I should write. In his recent Guardian article, Hanif Kureishi made the statement that creative writing can't be taught (despite the fact that he teaches it). This is something that periodically gets trotted out by various dickheads, but I feel what these people miss is that you can be taught HOW to write, but not how YOU should write. That is something far more mysterious and far more ephemeral. Personally I think it's more likely you'll pick that up too in a writing degree, but that's only because I managed to do that. You could pick it up anywhere, such as in space, or in a small car.
In my prose writing class, I'd had the same teacher for a long time. My stories never got anything more than a credit from him. This was the correct mark too, because they weren't very good. But I decided that I needed to get a distinction from him before I left, and put far more effort into a story than the usual ‘drink all day at the uni bar and then panic’ routine I usually did, which often resulted in those classic undergrad tales of confused people who are drinking and thinking about things. Art imitating life? It was well known that this lecturer was a huge fan of Don DeLillo and other writers from the gritty urban school. I don't quite remember what happened in the story I wrote for him, but it was full of grim people in subway tunnels and addictions and the meaninglessness-ness of it all. It was the least fun I'd ever had writing, but I was sure I'd written something 'better' – more meaningful and literary and that ticked all the correct buttons that must be ticked to get a higher mark. But I got a credit again – and one of the comments scrawled on the back was 'seems insincere'. On a side note, I remember one of my essays coming back with the single comment of 'Patrick, why?'
Some time after this, I read Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which started me on my long journey of obsession with his works. I have no idea who recommended it to me, or how it got into my hands. In some ways, I feel like I've always been reading it. But in most ways, I realise I'm just ultra forgetful.It's an absurd, beautiful and funny book ostensibly set during the firebombing of Dresden during WW2, but also in a dentist’s office, but also in an alien zoo enclosure in space. It features a protagonist who has become unstuck in time, who travels back and forth in a topsy-turvy manner between all these locations and periods in time. It's a quirky book, but undoubtedly a masterpiece. I realised I wanted to write something which was weird and meaningful and overall entertaining.
The first story I wrote after Slaughterhouse-Five was about a soldier who gets crushed by a helicopter while explaining the difference between different species of camels. It’s called ‘Life has Two Humps’. Hopefully nobody ever has to read it ever again, because it is magnificently cringe-worthy. Stilted dialogue, a ‘moral’ that I basically beat the reader with until the story finally ends. But it was fun – it was fun to write, I enjoyed reading it to my class and getting some chuckles, and my tutor at the time loved it. He unfortunately wasn't the one marking it – but he was super enthused. He wrote a list of other authors I should read. Maybe he validated bad behaviour – but I feel like it was the moment I crystallised, that I started writing with a purpose, that I started saying 'this is my style, this is Patrick-like.'
I wrote an essay for my literary theory teacher at the time, about Vonnegut, and I remember the lecturer lazily rubbing his face and saying ‘Oh, do young people STILL read Vonnegut?’ He is of course referring to the counter-culture popularity that Vonnegut gathered during the 60s. Hippies would sit on his lawn and annoy him. They helped make him a popular paperback author, but he never pandered to them. He didn't really get them. Except for the fact that he essentially wrote about hope and being good to other people, it's not like he wrote about 'hippy' stuff. He wrote about how helpful communities are for people.
After I left undergrad and then did a whole bunch of shitty retail work, I returned to uni and then proceeded to attempt to write my thesis on Vonnegut. I think at the beginning I was going to write something about him and technology and how he saw technology as providing the concept of a false utopia to post-war America . But what I swiftly discovered when I delved into the criticism, is that like my old lit lecturer, critics didn’t take him seriously. They either flat-out put him into the science fiction category (not that there’s anything wrong with genre writing, I love it) or basically dismissed him as pop trash. This has definitely changed a lot lately, but before I ignominiously dropped out of postgraduate studies, Vonnegut’s struggle to be considered literary or ‘worthy’ as the subtext goes, became the thrust of my thesis. So, I didn’t finish that thesis – but I did walk away with the knowledge that the writer I admire the most didn’t really ‘fit’ places. He was misunderstood by various establishments and derided by critics. It’s given me the strength to write my stupid things and not really care when they’re misunderstood, rejected from publications, called ‘nice’ by family members. Slaughterhouse-Five, for better or worse, makes me think it is a good idea to write a collection about sad superheroes, about stupid things I’ve done in the workplace, about the differences between camels. About how I should write, and how I want to write. Thanks, Slaughterhouse-Five.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.