Our older daughter and I share a deep appreciate for Kurt Vonnegut. When she notices anything on the Internet mentioning him she sends the item on to me. The most recent thing she sent was a letter he had sent to students at Xavier High School in NYC. A teacher there had asked the students whether they would like to write letters to their favorite authors asking them for suggestions on how they could be more creative.  The students sent letters to around 20 authors. Kurt Vonnegut, who was 84 at the time, was the only one to respond.

Here is his letter:

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood [the classroom teacher] and Messers Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make pubic appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

When I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long. To wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly. Not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

With new core curricula, standards and tests I doubt that students will read much Vonnegut, except on their own.  I find the letter much more valuable than curriculum guides and syllabuses, which I think people spend too much time on and have little value. Reading Kurt’s suggestions over and asking others to give similar examples or ways they become I think would me much more valuable.

In an earlier blog, I recommended people to view Ken Robinson’s TED talk on creativity, one of the most incisive, insightful and entertaining series of comments I have heard about creativity and how school administrators and testing companies stifle creativity. I tire of reminding people that there is not one passage of fiction on either the TOEFL or TOEIC examinations last time I checked.

Between Ken’s TED and Kurt’s letter, I hope you are emboldened to remind those who try to control what teachers should teach and how they should teach that academic English, so called business English, most classroom activities in workbooks which Ken refers to as “clerical tasks,” a focus on goals and grades, the use of selected by boards of education in place of reading and artistic material of all kinds selected by the students with their teachers are detrimental to learning in general and creativity in particular.

Imagine all the possibilities! That is what Kurt’s letter and Ken’s TED reminds us.

Enjoy, enjoy.


PS  I.  I just received the latest edition of Friends of Nigeria. More and more PCV’S from the 60’s are publishing their reflections based in large part on letters they wrote. This is another genre that is ripe for encouraging as an antidote to text messaging, useful as this can be for practical matters, but not useful for creativity, except of course the development of the language of text messaging which is a great example of how creative the young are if left alone!

cont-conv-lgPS II. I am attaching the cover of my book Contrasting Conversations, which many will realize is a photograph of a piece of cloth from West Africa. Another example of creativity at a time when there were no art academies in West Africa, but there were artists who shared their talents. I will be using some of the activities in this book in an on line course for iTDi [International Teacher Development Institute] that starts the 4th of May.