When Writing Creates Magic
Updated: 4 days ago
A strange thing happened when I first read Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. He was a genius, and this book is up there with his best, so it was already an enjoyable and enriching experience. I was reading a chapter or two in bed every night — a fine habit before turning out the light. I was beside my partner, and she was lost in her own book. Halfway down the page, I get to a passage, a peculiar tangent to the main story. It was funny. Funny and endearing and beautiful and dreadfully cruel all at the same time. But above all, it was funny. I started laughing. I started laughing out loud. Unless I’m in a shared experience — a conversation, watching live comedy, watching an excellent sitcom or film with friends — I hardly ever do this. I will always laugh on the inside. But here I was, laughing out loud. It rocked my partner from the universe she’d been lost in. She looked at me, somewhat put out, and asked what was so funny. I tried to explain but couldn’t get the words out because I couldn’t stop laughing.
It was late, and now I’d disturbed my partner from her book. She suggested perhaps we’d better go to sleep. I nodded, and she turned out the light. But the laughter continued. Eventually, I had to leave the bedroom. I ended up sitting on the living room sofa, laughing into a cushion. It was more than half an hour before I felt I could trust myself to return.
Now, some years later, I still can’t account for what happened. It was amazing, fascinating, and disturbing. I’ve never experienced it before or since, and I didn’t have the same reaction when I re-read the book last year.
Perhaps it only worked on a first read. Perhaps it was the writing combined with my mood and state of mind at the time. Vonnegut himself famously said, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion…”
While I don’t doubt that my frame of mind was a factor in the event, I believe two other elements played a significant part:
One — The passage resonated on some deep level, a level I was not consciously aware of
All writers know the value of the unconscious. Stephen King famously refers to his as ‘the boys in the basement.’ When he faces a challenge, a block in the writing road, he doesn’t worry, and he just gives the job to his unconscious. A day or two later, the boys in the basement present the solution. This may sound rather ‘woo’, but I promise you, it works. Indeed, perhaps you have experienced this yourself.
Personally, all my best ideas arrive in the shower and always when I’ve not been thinking about the problem in question. I’m there, shampoo in my eyes, and the solution just appears. This is everyday magic, not the rarified stuff that Vonnegut conjured, but magic all the same. It’s an extraordinarily powerful tool if you can learn to engage with it.
I know other writers who have their own method — for some, it’s a long walk. For some, it’s cooking. For at least one, it’s painting. I know that the late great Douglas Adams was very fond of a bath — he would sometimes take three a day. While I don’t know if he would claim these as deliberate attempts to put his unconscious to work, I am sure they will have played their part.
So if your unconscious mind can solve writing blocks, perhaps it’s capable of understanding something you cannot, of seeing something you missed, and finding something funny while not letting you in on the joke.
Two — The pure genius of Vonnegut’s words was surely the key ingredient of the magic, even if not the whole recipe
Here, my analysis runs dry. I wish I could understand how he did what he did, but if that were the case, perhaps it would no longer be magic.
Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007, four years before I’d had this experience. I would have loved to have been able to write to him and tell him how his words affected me. I have no idea how he would have reacted.
Quite possibly, he’d have placed me in the ‘no contact’ file or recommended medical assistance. Perhaps he’d have found me ridiculous or presumptuous — Vonnegut had a dark and volatile side that isn’t apparent in his writing, born from the trauma he suffered during and after the firebombing of Dresden in World War Two, compounded by an often uncomfortable personal life and a perceived lack of recognition from the American literary community. But I hope he would have smiled and found some joy in another tiny but real piece of evidence demonstrating something simple but precious — that despite everything, it was all worth it. This is the purest motivation to write — to connect to unknown souls through nothing more than words on a page.
Engage with your unconscious, and not only if you are a writer. Listen to it and perhaps even put it to work — it’s amazing what it can do for you.
Take a moment to reflect that the simple act of reading (especially when applied to the best writing) offers a connection into another mind, albeit one-way, defying location, distance, and time.
Read some Vonnegut. I promise you, it is quite extraordinary.
P.S. I didn’t include the passage that left me overwhelmed with laughter. That would be to miss the point. But if you’ve had a similar experience with Breakfast of Champions, drop me a line, and we’ll compare notes :-)
References and further reading on Kurt Vonnegut
What Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” Tells Us Now — Salman Rushdie’s rich 2019 essay on the 50th anniversary of Vonnegut’s most celebrated work
TIME article on what can be learned from the early drafts of Slaughterhouse-Five, including an early connection to Breakfast of Champions
Vonnegut’s best books, ranked by the man himself
A fascinating LA Times review of Charles Shields’s 2011 biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes, with a tangential intro on when a connection with the writer’s mind (in this case, the biographer) can be unhelpful
Excellent animated TED-Ed video introducing Slaughterhouse-Five and Vonnegut.