Kurt Vonnegut to Teenagers: How to Grow the Soul via Art as Meditation

As yesterday’s DM indicates, we can easily underestimate the power and grace that art transmits.  In 2006, a high school English teacher asked students to write a famous author and ask for advice. Kurt Vonnegut was the only one to respond.  His response follows:

Kurt Vonnegut from an appearance on WNET-TV. Wikimedia Commons.

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs 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 public appearances anymore because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What 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.

“Sidewalks are for walking & chalking.” Photo by Sir Manuel on Unsplash

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*

*This was a gift to me from Aaron Stern, president of the Academy of the Love of Learning.

See Matthew Fox, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet.

And Fox, Creation Spirituality: Liberating Gifts for the Peoples of the Earth.

And Fox, The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time.

Banner image: “Trumpet Player.” Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

What lessons do you derive from this letter from Kurt Vonnegut encouraging young people to practice art as meditation? Is there wisdom here for ushering in a New Year?

Recommended Reading

Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet

Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.
“Matt Fox is a pilgrim who seeks a path into the church of tomorrow.  Countless numbers will be happy to follow his lead.” –Bishop John Shelby Spong, author, Rescuing the Bible from FundamentalismLiving in Sin

Creation Spirituality: Liberating Gifts for the Peoples of the Earth

Fox’s spirituality weds the healing and liberation found in North American Creation Spirituality and in South American Liberation Theology. Creation Spirituality challenges readers of every religious and political persuasion to unite in a new vision through which we learn to honor the earth and the people who inhabit it as the gift of a good and just Creator.
“A watershed theological work that offers a common ground for religious seekers and activists of all stripes.” — Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Practice.

The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood For Our Time

Thomas Aquinas said, “To live well is to work well,” and in this bold call for the revitalization of daily work, Fox shares his vision of a world where our personal and professional lives are celebrated in harmony–a world where the self is not sacrificed for a job but is sanctified by authentic “soul work.”
“Fox approaches the level of poetry in describing the reciprocity that must be present between one’s inner and outer work…[A]n important road map to social change.” ~~ National Catholic Reporter

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7 thoughts on “Kurt Vonnegut to Teenagers: How to Grow the Soul via Art as Meditation”

  1. Avatar

    Kurt Vonnegut provides a miracle for your young people. Thank you for today’s edition of your daily devotion.
    In my youth I loved his books. Now I, too, look like an iguana but am thrilled when old geezers offer their wisdom to our youth. Thank you. Marcia

  2. Avatar

    Synchronisty unfolds…

    Just the other day, I stated to my husband that I am making a visionary board for 2024, with all the things that bring me joy. Things pertaining to this vision are: create art in a variety of mediums, play the lyre, drum and sing, write, pray with my pipe, spend time in nature engaging with all of these intuitive, creative, artistic and imaginative pathways of connection.

    Today’s DM was like a confirmation from Spirit, inviting me to experience the beauty of life; amidst all the horrors of death happening in the world. Through leaning into this rather paradoxal process of Life and Death; there is perhaps more than meets the eye that will begin to unfold, evolve and emerge at the heart of my becoming; through converging with the wisdom to be discovered in encountering the Spirit of JOY.

    It’s time to find balance in the tension; to learn to ride the wave of chaos without sinking; by embracing all that brings me joy; without feeling guilty or selfish about doing so, which has been a challenge for me empathically feeling and knowing that many are in the midst of so much suffering and sorrow in the world.

    Perhaps more fully embodying my own becoming will in some mysterious way help to transform the collective suffering and sorrow into something beautiful; a life creatively lived in the midst of the deconstruction of all that which needs to die, in order for new life to begin again.

  3. Avatar

    God must be talking to me now: When I was 21, interning at a publishing house in NYC, I went to my usual bookstore around the corner. When the book I was searching for wasn’t on the shelves, I asked myself silently “What book should I look for?” Immediately my mind said “Vonnegut” because my co-intern had been talking my ear off that morning about his books. So I turned around to head toward the “V” aisle thinking “V-Vonnegut” — and right when I turn around, the MAN is standing right in front of me. I can’t even walk because he’s blocking my way. (I only knew it was him because at the time he was in those American Express commercials.)

    That coincidence changed my life, I suppose. When I told someone about it many years later, that person said: “That was God.” Meaning the Synchronicity was God…not Kurt Vonnegut:)

    I’m not sure if ever since my thought has matched with such precise lightning speed my outside world.

    So it goes.

  4. Avatar

    Our unique personal lives are Sacred creations of Our Beloved Source~Co-Creator and this Loving Creative Spirit within our hearts/Souls Loves Us personally, collectively, and eternally, and wants us to share and express our unique gifts/fruits with one another and All Ongoing Evolving Creation in Loving Diverse Oneness in the Sacred Process of the Eternal Present Moment….

  5. Avatar

    Oh, this is about PLAYING!
    We all carry God in Her/His Adult-modes: seriously-adult rabbi-Jesus, Mother-Love, and Spirit-Teacher-Mystic, but first, and profoundly important for our entire lives, is God-as CREAT-ING, God-AS-Loving-Action in the Primary First-mode, the transcendent Act-mode of God’s free, uninhibited, triumphant Self-Expression.
    In other words, God Created Her/Him-Self in Joyful Play-time, Artist-time, musician-time, unself-conscious-dance-time: wildly unhindered, full-throttle, childlike wonder-time, play-Creating with curiosity and joyful abandon,

    We enter the world with that divine Play-Create instinct lovingly tucked inside us, but it’s usually quickly suppressed and abandoned as an artifact of babyish immaturity. But if you close off that childlike wonder, that gladness of creativity, you do violence to yourself and your soul. You shrink your soul to fit into a crushed, misshapen caricature of healthy maturity. You abandon a sacredly vital part of yourself.

    Therefore, open yourself to the exploration of your inner childlike, playfully creating wonder.

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