SunWinks! Sunday Gather Writing Essential Sept. 23, 2012: Creative Writing 101 (SunWE)

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on September 22, 2012 0 Comments

Last Thursday, I got a call from the Bedford, the independent living community where my mom and dad live.  They said they’d put Mom in an ambulance and sent it to SW Washington Medical Center.  Carol and I rushed over there.  Mom’d had some numbness and swelling in her arm.  They suspected a TIA (transient mini-stroke).  Mom was in good spirits, philosophical, alert, worrying about everybody else.  The symptoms of the TIA seemed to have come and gone already.

They took Mom to get a CAT scan almost immediately.  Meanwhile, nurse after nurse burst into the curtained cubicle where Carol and I were still sitting, did a double-take, turned on their heels and dashed off again.  One wanted to do an EKG; another wanted to draw blood; there were at least half a dozen.  It got to be pretty funny.  Then a staff member wheeled a gurney into the cubicle bearing a white-haired octogenarian woman.  Carol and I blinked, realized it wasn’t Mom, looked at the nurse and said simultaneously, “That’s not ours!”

They kept Mom for 26 hours.  They ran more tests than the President gets at Walter Reed Army Hospital.  All were negative.  My mother is as healthy as a horse.  We went straight from the hospital to the Old Spaghetti Factory and celebrated with Dad, two brothers and a sister-in-law.

Consequently, today SunWinks! is pleased to present a guest columnist.  His name is Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. This is from the preface to Bagombo Snuff Box, his collection of previously uncollected stories.  He is talking about how to write a story.  After that, there’s a video (<5 min.) which you simply must watch.  It’s hysterical!


Now lend me your ears.  Here is Creative Writing 101:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.

Ms. O’Connor may or may not have broken my seventh rule, “Write to please just one person.” There is no way for us to find out for sure, unless, of course, there is a Heaven after all, and she’s there, and the rest of us are going there, and we can ask her.

I’m almost sure she didn’t break rule seven. The late American psychiatrist Dr. Edmund Bergler, who claimed to have treated more professional writers than any other shrink, said in his book The Writer and Psychoanalysis that most writers in his experience wrote to please one person they knew well, even if they didn’t realize they were doing that. It wasn’t a trick of the fiction trade. It was simply a natural human thing to do, whether or not it could make a story better.

Dr. Bergler said it commonly required psychoanalysis before his patients could know for whom they had been writing. But as soon as I finished his book, and then thought for only a couple of minutes, I knew it was my sister Allie I had been writing for. She is the person the stories in this book were written for. Anything I knew Allie wouldn’t like I crossed out. Everything I knew she would get a kick out of I left in.

Allie is up in Heaven now, with my first wife Jane and Sam Lawrence and Flannery O’Connor and Dr. Bergler, but I still write to please her. Allie was funny in real life. That gives me permission to be funny, too. Allie and I were very close.

In my opinion, a story written for one person pleases a reader, dear reader, because it makes him or her apart of the action. It makes the reader feel, even though he or she doesn’t know it, as though he or she is eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation between two people at the next table, say, in a restaurant.

That’s my educated guess.

Here is another: A reader likes a story written for just one person because the reader can sense, again without knowing it, that the story has boundaries like a playing field. The story can’t go simply anywhere. This, I feel, invites readers to come off the sidelines, to get into the game with the author. Where is the story going next? Where should it go? No fair! Hopeless situation! Touchdown!

Remember my rule number eight? “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible”? That’s so they can play along. Where, outside the Groves of Academe, does anybody like a story where so much information is withheld or arcane that there is no way for readers to play along?

The boundaries to the playing fields of my short stories, and my novels, too, were once the boundaries of the soul of my only sister. She lives on that way.


© 1999 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.


Video: Vonnegut on “The Shapes of Stories”

The Prompt


Write a short story.  Limit: 1500 words.


See the September 16 edition of Sunwinks!

Put SunWE in the title and tags.

  • Indicate in some way which devices or techniques I should be paying attention to.  (If responding to today’s, put Creative Writing 101 in the title field.)
  • This prompt does not turn into a pumpkin a week (or even two) from today.  If your piece isn’t done in the next week or two, get it in when you can.  This is supposed to be fun.
  • I will comment on every submission and include a link to it in the next column.
  • If you would like a little more academic critique–but still very friendly and positive–include the word “rigorous” in your post (e.g. “rigorous critique wanted”).

The response to our Prose Poem prompt was wonderful!  Responses are linked to below.  Please check out and comment on one or more.  Let me know if I missed yours.

Humbly yours,



Tumbling Verse

I’ll Miss You When It’s Over II

by Sam Henderson

Prose Poem


by Adina Pelle

Breakfast Brutality

by Granny Janny


One Night in November

by A. F. Stewart

Ticket to Ride

by Richard Lynn Livesay

Lesson Learned

by Veronica Hosking

Conversation 1 by Tovli S.

The Black Prince

by Irina Dimitric

Dedicated to Doug

by Pam Brittain

Prose or a Poem?

by G.M. Jackson

Tilting at Windbags

by DW

© 2012 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved.  Please share this on, and elsewhere on the web by means of a link back to this page, but please do not copy.   Doug’s latest book is The Depressed Guy’s Book of Wisdom from Chipmunka Publishing.

Doug’s Gather Group is Depression and Creativity, devoted to creative writing about depression and related illnesses, and creative writing as therapy.  Please consider joining.  You can read more of Doug’s posts there, or here.


About the Author ()

57 year old musician, poet, father of 4 grown children, composer, recording artist, author, humorist, survivor. I'm thoughtful, introspective, introverted, open, scathingly honest about myself, creative, a Renaissance guy, willing to grow and change and

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