I can recall with much clarity the day I picked up "Breakfast of Champions" in a bookstore in the old 100 Oaks Mall in Nashville in the mid-1970s, read the first page and fell in love with the book and the writer. It broke every rule I had been taught about writing in school and was one of the most powerful tales I've ever read. That book showed me that what I needed to do to be a writer was to believe in whatever writing voice I had, and to love my readers and my characters and to be honest with them and with myself. The rest would take care of itself.
Vonnegut was the best writing teacher I ever had, though we only met each other on the pages he penned. I got drunk on those pages, lost time, got dizzy, and would lift up my eyes from the page and look around to see if anyone had noticed that I had left the world and been ... somewhere else.
I remain astonished at how he could be simple and profound and silly and say so much is seemingly small ways. Little phrases have always stayed with me - So it goes ... diddley-squat ... chrono-synclastic infidibulum .... rented a tent a tent a tent ....
Vonnegut would occassionally provide commencement speeches for college graduations. Here is one he gave to grads at Rice University:
"Have we met before? No. But I have thought a lot about people like you. You men here are Adam. You women are Eve. Who hasn't thought a lot about Adam and Eve?
This is Eden, and you're about to be kicked out. Why? You ate the knowledge apple. It's in your tummies now.
And who am I? I used to be Adam. But now I am Methuselah.
And who is a serpent among us? Anyone who would strike a child.So what does this Methuselah have to say to you, since he has lived so long? I'll pass on to you what another Methuselah said to me. He's Joe Heller, author, as you know, of Catch 22. We were at a party thrown by a multi-billionaire out on Long Island, and I said, ''Joe, how does it make you feel to realize that only yesterday our host probably made more money than Catch 22, one of the most popular books of all time, has grossed world-wide over the past forty years?''
Joe said to me, ''I have something he can never have.''
I said, ''What's that, Joe?''
And he said, ''The knowledge that I've got enough.''
''The good opinion of our neighbors.''
Neighbors are people who know you, can see you, can talk to you -- to whom you may have been of some help or beneficial stimulation. They are not nearly as numerous as the fans, say, of Madonna or Michael Jordan.
To earn their good opinions, you should apply the special skills you have learned here, and meet the standards of decency and honor and fair play set by exemplary books and elders.
It's even money that one of you will get a Nobel Prize. Wanna bet? It's only a million bucks, but what the heck. That's better than a sharp stick in the eye, as the saying goes.
This speech is now almost twice as long as the most efficient oration ever uttered by an American: Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Lincoln was murdered for his ideals. The founder of this university, William Marsh Rice, another idealist, was murdered for his money. Whatever! The good both men did lives after them.
Up to this point this speech has been new stuff, written for this place and this occasion. But every graduation address I've delivered has ended, and this one will, too, with old stuff about my Uncle Alex, my father's kid brother. A Harvard graduate, Alex Vonnegut was locally useful in Indianapolis as an honest insurance agent. He was also well-read and wise.
One thing which Uncle Alex found objectionable about human beings was that they seldom took time out to notice when they were happy. He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and he would interrupt the conversation to say, "If this isn't nice, what is?"
So, I hope that you Adams and Eves in front of me will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud: ''If this isn't nice, what is?'' Hold up your hands if you promise to do that.
That's one favor I've asked of you.
Now I ask you for another one. I ask it not only of the graduates, but of everyone here, including even Malcolm Gillis, so keep your eyes on him. I'll want a show of hands, after I ask this question:
''How many of you have had a teacher at any level in your educations who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?''
Hold up your hands, please.
Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone sitting or standing near you.
All done? Thank you.
If this isn't nice, what is?