Is Billy Pilgrim Crazy?

Slaughterhouse-five+by+Kurt+VonnegutA student of mine recently asked whether Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist (for lack of a better word) of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, has, within the context of the narrative (such as it is) really experienced a close encounter with aliens or simply lost his mind.

The question is certainly valid. When I first read the novel over twenty years ago, I took the story at face value. When Vonnegut informed me that Billy Pilgrim had become unstuck in time, I went along for the ride. Yet the more I thought about it, the less willing I was to suspend my disbelief. After all, how did the Tralfamadorians get around if their bodies were shaped like toilet plungers?

Eventually, however, I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter whether the aliens really visited Billy or he imagined them. What matters is that he believes he’s been visited by aliens, and that this belief – along with all of the knowledge they allegedly impart to him – provides the framework for Billy’s understanding of the world.

Throughout his oeuvre, Vonnegut echoes the Shakespearean sentiment that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In Mother Night, for example, he writes, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In Bluebeard, he adds,  “Belief is nearly the whole of the universe whether based on truth or not.” In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut expresses this notion in financial terms: “Frames are where the money is.”

On a literal level, of course, Vonnegut’s reference to frames explains what Billy does for a living; he’s an optician, and most of his money comes from selling protective eye ware to employees of the General Forge and Foundry Company of Ilium, New York. Figuratively, however, Vonnegut is letting us know that context (i.e. how we frame information) is everything (or, more colloquially, “where the money is”).

The idea that stories shape our sense of reality saturates Slaughterhouse Five. Early on, Mary O’Hare is furious with the author because she suspects that the book he’s writing will glamorize war. Later in the novel, Roland Weary makes sense of his experiences behind enemy lines during World War Two by imagining himself as a member of his own version of the Three Musketeers. Later still, a dying colonel convinces himself that he’s a hero by adopting the nom de guerre “Wild Bob” and picturing a cookout he’ll never get to enjoy.

The list goes on and on, but the most imaginative and explicit example of the power of stories to frame reality in Slaughterhouse Five is a novel by the fictional science fiction writer Kilgore Trout titled The Gospel from Outer Space. In this novel, a visitor from outer space figures out that the reason Christians can be so cruel is “slipshod storytelling in the New Testament.”

The trouble with the New Testament, the alien realizes, is that its underlying message belies its intent. Whereas the message of the New Testament is to be kind and merciful, the Gospels actually taught this: “Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.”

To rectify this problem, the alien writes a new Gospel in which Jesus is “a nobody” whose crucifixion is so repugnant that God adopts “the bum” and issues a warning to all of humanity: “From this moment on, He will punish horribly anyone who torments a bum who has no connections!

Needless to say, the underlying premise of The Gospel from Outer Space echoes the dominant theme of Slaughterhouse Five: stories shape reality, a notion borne out by life in the “real” world whenever anyone claims a monopoly on virtue by citing the foundational document of their choice, religious or otherwise. (If you have time, take a look at the Patton Oswalt video at the bottom of this post for a funny take on this phenomenon. Fair warning: It’s a little racy.)

In the context of the novel, then, Billy Pilgrim’s belief that he’s been visited by aliens is no different from anybody’s faith in God or, for that matter, faith that the framers of the Constitution had everything so perfectly worked out that there’s no room for interpreting the document in anything but the most literal fashion.

Moreover, the vast range of stories, big and small, that Vonnegut describes throughout Slaughterhouse Five serves as a warning to those of us whose skeptical tendencies might tempt us to feel superior to religious fundamentalists, strict constructionists, and other people who, like Billy, build their lives around such stories.  Sure, they’re crazy. But so are we – because no matter how sophisticated we imagine ourselves to be, we all invent or subscribe to narratives that allow us to make sense of the world.

In one way or another, we’re all Billy Pilgrim.

NaNoWriMo?

As a lot of writers know, November is National Novel Writing Month (or, as the hip kids call it, NaNoWriMo). As its name suggests, the basic idea behind NaNoWriMo is for aspiring writers to produce a novel (or at least a 50,000-word portion of a novel) in the space of 30 days. While I do see some value in this endeavor, I wanted to take a moment to come out in support of writers who, like me, won’t be participating in this month-long endeavor. My message: Don’t worry about it. Size doesn’t matter. While some of your writer friends may be amassing huge word-counts over the next few weeks, slow and steady wins the race for the rest of us.

To put NaNoWriMo into perspective, it might help to examine the endeavor in light of a distinction that Kurt Vonnegut makes in his novel Timequake. According to Vonnegut, writers can be divided into two categories: swoopers and bashers. Swoopers are writers who fly through a first draft in no time at all (relatively speaking) and spend a lot of time revising. Bashers, by way of contrast, are writers who obsess over every keystroke and throw out ninety percent of what they write as they’re writing it. When a basher finishes manuscript, Vonnegut said, it’s pretty much done. Needless to say, NaNoWriMo is great for the swoopers among us, but the bashers might want to sit this one out.

Personally, I’m a basher. I’ll stare at a screen of hours on end, wondering whether or not to use a comma in the middle of a given sentence. Sure, this strategy may seem counterproductive, especially when all of my swooper friends are telling me about about how many words they’ve written since we last spoke, how many pages of text they’ve generated since embarking on their latest projects. But here’s the thing: what I enjoy about writing isn’t watching the words pile up on the page. I actually enjoy crafting well-wrought sentences in much the same way that some hobbyists enjoy raising ships in bottles. In many ways, my love for making sentences is what got me into writing in the first place.

I’d be lying, of course, if I said that I was above the temptation to participate in something like NaNoWriMo. Yes, a part of me (sometimes a very big part of me) gets jealous when I hear my friends talking about how big their manuscripts have grown after just a few weeks of stroking their keyboards. And I also have to admit that, unlike Vonnegut’s ideal bashers, I also have to engage in quite a bit of revision when I’m done a draft, so it’s not like I’m saving time on the back end of the process by making sure everything’s “perfect” the first time around. At the same time, though, I’ve hit upon a process that works for me. I work at a pace that I’m comfortable with and, more importantly, a pace that allows me to enjoy the process of writing.

So far, working at this pace has paid off. I’ve published two book-length works of nonfiction, a novel, and a good number of stories, essays, and book reviews, and I also have a second novel on the way. On one hand, it’s conceivable that I’d have even more publications under my belt if I’d adopted the swooper stance and tried to crank out as many words as I could each day. On the other hand, I might have hated every minute of it — or at the very least, gotten discouraged when the fruits of my swooping didn’t mature into fully-developed and finely-crafted prose fit for public consumption.

Embracing my identity as a basher, I’ve found a niche in the writing world that suits my temperament perfectly. I work slowly (and sometimes surely), one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time toward the goal of a completed work, and when I’m finished, I go back and start working on it again. It takes time and patience, and some days I just want to give up. But I’ve learned to savor the process, learned to enjoy stringing words together and making the best of my time in front of my computer screen. At the end of the day (or even the month), I might not have the highest word count among all of my friends, but I can rest assured in the knowledge that I’ve been doing what I love. And for me, there’s no other reason to write.

Strangers with Candy (Address to Saint Joseph’s Prep Mothers’ Club, January 12, 2010)

The good news is that the holidays are over, and it’s especially good news for my wife because she doesn’t have to deal with me as I dissect Christmas carols anymore. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year? I don’t think so. Andy Williams was obviously never a teacher. If he had been, he’d know that June is the most wonderful time of the year. Or at least if he’d been a parent, he’d know that September was the most wonderful time of the year. But Christmas? Not even close.

Next, there’s “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy, “Do you hear what I hear?” To which the shepherd boy should respond, “I don’t know about you, but I hear a talking lamb, and that is messed up. I knew I never should have eaten those mushrooms for lunch.” But he doesn’t. Instead he goes to the King and says, “A child, a child shivers in the cold. Let us bring him silver and gold.”

I have a better idea, kid. Let’s bring the child a blanket. Or a hoodie. Or those pajamas with feet in them. Because silver and gold aren’t going to help a whole hell of a lot once hypothermia sets in.

And who can forget “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” the lesson of which is that it’s okay to be different—as long as the thing that makes you different can save Christmas? If he’d been Rudolph the three-legged reindeer with a tail made of celery, he still wouldn’t be allowed to play any reindeer games. I also suspect that even after Rudolph saved Christmas, the other reindeer continued to make fun of him behind his back anyway.

I’m an optimist that way.

Of course, now that the holidays are over, I have to find other targets, like breakfast cereal commercials. As parents, that’s where you lose the battle before it’s even begun. Think about it. As soon as kids are born, you tell them two things: 1) I love you. 2) Don’t talk to strangers. In fact, forget the first one. Just don’t talk to strangers. Especially strangers with candy.

But then what happens? You sit them down in front of the television on a Saturday morning, and who should come along but the king of all strangers with candy, Cap’n Crunch.

“Hey, kids! Want to get on my boat?” he says.

“I don’t know,” your kids say. “We’re not supposed to talk to strangers.”

“Strangers?” says the captain. “Look at this hat! This mustache! Clearly I’m no stranger. I’m an authority figure. Come on aboard, and I’ll introduce you to the sog monster.”

Toucan Sam is no better: “Hey, kids! Follow your nose… into the woods with me for some Froot Loops.”

Froot with two O’s, by the way.

“Well, mom never said anything about talking birds,” your kids say. “By the way, do you know a talking lamb?”

*

But now that the holidays are over, I can go back to school and share all of this with my students so my wife doesn’t have to deal with it. Not that they like it any better, but they get to leave after an hour, usually grumbling. Why you gotta be that way? Why you gotta ruin everything? I like Cap’n Crunch. More than once, I’ve had a student tell me that I ruined her life. Thanks a lot. I can’t watch TV anymore without thinking about it.

Which, oddly enough, is the whole point of education. I’m actually there to ruin people’s lives. And at some point, I should really thank all of the people who ruined mine. Like my grandfather. He’s the one who told me that I should read Slaugherhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Then again, I didn’t actually get around to reading it until a girl told me that I might like it, so I’ll have to thank her, too. Her name was Theresa Jones, and she got most of her books from a dumpster behind a bookstore. Except for their missing covers, the books were all in great condition, but poor sales had condemned them to an early death. The least Theresa could do was rescue the cult favorites and share them with the as-yet uninitiated.

Hence my first reading of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Hence my falling in love with language.

Hence my decision to major in English.

Hence eight years of graduate school.

Theresa’s coverless copy of Welcome to the Monkey House still bears a warning that reads: “If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that it is stolen property. Neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this stripped book.” So as she was welcoming me to the monkey house, Theresa was also robbing Kurt Vonnegut of his pocket change. If you doubt the gravity of this crime, consider this: had Theresa not gotten me hooked on Vonnegut, I never would have gone to graduate school, and the world would have one less over-educated yet largely unemployable doctor of the English language to worry about.

Maybe this is the real reason behind the prohibition against “stripped books.”

Maybe “stripped books” lead to harder drugs like “curiosity” and “critical thinking.”

And we all know where “curiosity” and “critical thinking” lead:

Straight to “higher education.”

Theresa might just as well have invited me into an abandoned house to shoot heroin with her—reading Vonnegut was that good. Talk about strangers with candy!

*

The thing about reading Vonnegut, though, is that he’ll definitely ruin your life. Or, at the very least, he’ll get you to question all of your assumptions. Because he points out all of the weird incongruities of the world we live in and demands that we do the same. Love, war, religion. Vonnegut forces us to look at them all with a critical eye. And once you’ve started to do that, you’ve also begun to displace yourself into a new reality. You’re out of your comfort zone and into uncharted territory. You’re off the map.

This isn’t the road less traveled.

In fact, it isn’t a road at all.

It’s a space where you can do something new.

Something different.

Something spectacular.

People in the arts strive to get into this kind of state. We love coming at the world from a new angle, looking at it differently, looking at it critically. Needless to say, it isn’t easy. We tend to alienate a lot of people, for one thing. And for another thing, this approach to looking at the world can be exhausting after a while. What we wouldn’t give to just veg out in front of the television with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch while watching CSI. This isn’t, of course, to say that the life of the artist needs to be a solitary one. On the contrary, I think the opposite is true.

*

Every few months, I’ll speak at a writers’ conference, and the questions I invariably get all revolve around how to get published. Writers—especially beginning writers, writers who are just getting their feet wet—come to me with wide eyes and ask what they need to write in order to get a six figure publishing deal (as if I know!). To paraphrase Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, they want to know the secret. As if there’s a formula. As if there’s a magic bullet. The best I can do is tell them, at the very least, that they need to do three things: work hard, take risks, and be generous.

Coincidentally, I also think these three things will lead to a productive, meaningful life in general.

*

So let’s start with working hard. The more specific version of this is that I tell writers that they need to get comfortable sitting in front of a blank computer screen for hours on end and filling it up with words—preferably words that make some modicum of sense. But the big challenge isn’t so much filling the screen with words. That part’s easy. The hard part is continuing to sit there when the words aren’t coming to you. Because that’s the challenge of being a writer: every time you sit down in front of the blank screen, you’re going off the map. You’re doing something new. You’re saying something that’s never been said before—or at least something that’s never been said quite the way you’re saying it.

This is one of the major conundrums I face as a writing teacher: I can’t tell my students what to say, but that’s all they want me to do. But from my perspective, they need to figure it out for themselves. They need to play with words and experiment with new forms of expression until they find their own voices, until they grow comfortable with expressing themselves.

I’m reminded here of what Frank Raffa used to say when we’d slack off in his French class: “Just sit back. We’ll do all the work.” Meaning, of course, that we should get up off our asses and crack open a book once in a while. At the time, I thought it was just a joke: Ha-ha, Raffa wants us to study. What a card! Doesn’t he know we’re teenagers? But now that I’m a teacher, I feel his pain. Getting my students to push themselves is a daily uphill battle. They want the easy answers, the silver bullets, the formulas, but all I have are maddening questions for them to ponder and the constant exhortation to try something new.

Which brings me to my next point, which is that students need to take risks. On one hand, I can provide pat formulas for my students to copy down so that they can force their ideas into preconceived templates, but that would be boring. The result would be a classroom full of students who approach writing as if they’re playing Mad Libs: Insert thesis here. Insert first supporting argument here. And on and on. Instead, I tell my students to take risks with their writing, to go out on a limb. Don’t just risk failure, I tell them. Risk spectacular failure. Because if there’s one thing I want my students to know, it’s that I’d rather work with a student who did something interesting and got it all wrong than one who did everything by the book and got it all boring.

Back when I was fresh out of college, my first job was as a stock boy at a CVS. I wasn’t very good at it, but the manager pulled me aside one day and gave me a pep talk. If I played my cards right, she said at the end of the pep talk, I could probably work my way up through the ranks and become a manager just like her! Needless to say, the prospect of this fate sounded to my twenty-two year old mind like a death sentence and begged a single question: How wrong do I need to play my cards in order to get fired?

Obviously, the manager was showing me a path—and it probably could have led to a pretty comfortable life. At the same time, though, I knew it wasn’t the life for me. So I took a risk. I quit my job and, eventually, applied to grad school.

And here I am today.

Back in high school.

Finally, I tell beginning writers that they need to be generous. One reason I say this is that writing tends to be a solitary pursuit, and writers tend to be a little cagey. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to talk to beginning writers about their projects only to be told that they refuse to discuss their work with anyone. Not out of modesty or shyness, but because the writers are afraid that I’ll steal their ideas. The thing about writing, though, as with any worthwhile endeavor, is that you need to be willing to give as much (or more) than you expect to get. This is what it means to be a part of a community.

Things really started clicking for me as a writer when I started volunteering with Philadelphia Stories magazine. They published a short story of mine, then asked me to join their editorial board. As with most nonprofit literary journals, it was a position that required a lot of work and no pay, but I learned so much from it—about writing, the editorial process, and how to network with other writers. Eventually they promoted me to Associate Fiction Editor, and when the publishers decided to start a books division, I was one of the first people in line with a manuscript to submit.

My other publications have followed a similar path. My first book was co-written with a colleague of mine named Tom Powers. Tom and I had gone to graduate school together, and it turned out that we were both fans of the classic sci-fi series Doctor Who. We’d talk about the show and send emails back and forth to each other discussing the significance of different episodes, and eventually our dialogue turned into a book.

I’ve also been very involved in promoting books from small and independent presses through my blog, Small Press Reviews. I started the blog largely because there were loads of small press books that I loved that never got reviewed with any regularity, and I wanted to create a forum for rectifying that problem. Though I started off buying the books I reviewed, it wasn’t long until publishers started sending review copies to me for free. About a year or so after I started doing this, one publisher dropped me a line and asked if I ever wrote anything other than reviews.

“Funny you should ask,” I said.

*

So ultimately what I’m saying is that we need to be engaged with the world. In some ways, that’s a little ironic, because I’m also saying that we need to go off the map once in a while. For me, though, the two ideas are inseparable. In order to be truly engaged with the world, we need to understand it. We need to be able to look at it for what it is, know what’s going on, and respond to it. That is, we need to listen to the world—really listen to it—in order to talk back.

This takes a lot of work.

It involves taking risks.

And it also demands generosity on everybody’s part.

But this kind of effort puts us on a two-way street, makes us participants in a dialogue with the world at large. In other words, it makes us part of a community. And when we come together as a community, we can do anything.