Arranging Words for Money No Game of Scrabble

by | Aug 6, 2012

In Spring of 1977, The Paris Review, published an interview with Kurt Vonnegut.

The interview is a composite of four question and answer sessions with the writer, and edited by Vonnegut himself. Therefore, what he has to say in this “interview” is not as off-the-cuff as it might seem. Rather, it’s intentional, as most text-based exercises are.


You have been a public relations man and an advertising man—


Oh, I imagine.


Was this painful? I mean—did you feel your talent was being wasted, being crippled?


No. That’s romance—that work of that sort damages a writer’s soul. At Iowa, Dick Yates and I used to give a lecture each year on the writer and the free-enterprise system. The students hated it. We would talk about all the hack jobs writers could take in case they found themselves starving to death, or in case they wanted to accumulate enough capital to finance the writing of a book. Since publishers aren’t putting money into first novels anymore, and since the magazines have died, and since television isn’t buying from young freelancers anymore, and since the foundations give grants only to old poops like me, young writers are going to have to support themselves as shameless hacks. Otherwise, we are soon going to find ourselves without a contemporary literature. There is only one genuinely ghastly thing hack jobs do to writers, and that is to waste their precious time.

After studying anthropology at University of Chicago, Vonnegut took a job working in PR for General Electric. His choice to earn is only one reason why I love him, but it is an important one. “It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do,” Vonnegut reflects.

It’s wonderful to know that Vonnegut thinks having a hack job doesn’t hurt your writing, it just sucks up your time. One might argue then, that a writer with a hack job merely needs to make time for their real work, while simultaneously performing the tasks that pay. I might add here that a writer can also work to transcend the hackery. Sure, it can become a head-banger of a challenge to write ad copy, or news copy, that does its job and delivers on craft and artfulness. But it’s a pursuit that strengthens the writer, in my opinion.

I can see where Vonnegut, or another writer, might claim that transcending the hackery isn’t the point, the point is simply to make money and return home to your family and the book that’s growing there, trying desperately to be born. My counterpoint is why make such harsh lines between real writing and writing merely to earn? Why not write it all with great care?