Sunday Snippet: Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

“If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable.”

When my brother and I were still children, our parents fully expected that, between the two of us, one of us would go on to become a doctor and the other one would become an accountant. It didn’t really matter which one of us did what, as long as one was a doctor and the other was an accountant. Or maybe a lawyer. Imagine their reaction when both of us ended up with Bachelor of Arts degrees.

I’m not saying that my parents were unsupportive. They never told us that we couldn’t get degrees in philosophy, psychology or English literature. They just told us that we may enjoy a brighter future if we chose a different career path. But here we are. Or rather, here I am. It’s true that medicine, engineering and chemistry are necessary for our society to function, but the arts are what we stay alive for. I feel compelled to write, whether or not it is a “way to make a living.”

American author Kurt Vonnegut seems to understand this sentiment. The arts may or may not be a viable way to make a living in a culture that seems focused more on pragmatism (and fashion), but the very act of exploring the arts is what makes us feel alive. It’s what makes life more interesting and, as he says, more bearable.

“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

And that’s the thing. Not everyone has the good fortune or privilege to pursue the arts on a professional basis, nor does everyone have that inclination. Even if your career has nothing to do with writing, drawing, or composing music, you should do it anyway. You should do it to feed your soul.

Your paintings may be ugly and your screenplays may be incoherent, but you’ve already done a lot more than nearly anyone else you meet on the street. Remember that art, even mediocre art, can truly be beautiful for its own sake, irrespective of what the critics have to say.

In the case of Kurt Vonnegut, his first five novels (after serving and being captured in World War II, no less) were met with a tepid response, but 1969’s Slaughterhouse-Five was a big hit. Sometimes, you just need to persevere and create art for the sake of creating art.

And one day, maybe your parents won’t be so disappointed in you anymore.