Buddhist Catnaps

Any regular visitor to Bibliophilopolis will already know that I am a big fan of the short story form. Imagine my delight, then, when I learned that the June meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club will be covering his collection, “Bagombo Snuff Box.” Twenty-four new morsels for me to feast upon!

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An even greater delight was Vonnegut’s own introduction to the book, where he repeats his eight rules for “Creative Writing 101” which I’d seen before but was nonetheless happy to encounter again. (I’ll quote them for you at the end of this post).

What I enjoyed most in the introduction was his speculation that reading short stories can often have kind of a therapeutic effect, relating how in high school “While I am reading, my pulse and breathing slow down. My high school troubles drop away. I am in a pleasant state somewhere between sleep and restfulness.” He then describes that he would often recommend a particularly good story to his father who, upon returning home from work, would be “tired and blue” and that Kurt would tell him, “I have just read this story I think you might enjoy.” He then observes the same impact on his father, “Dad starts to read. His pulse and breathing slow down. His troubles drop away, and so on.”

This doesn’t necessarily, technically prove anything, although Vonnegut believes it does:

“It proves that a short story, because of its physiological and psychological effects on a human being, is more closely related to Buddhist styles of meditation than it is to any other form of narrative entertainment. What you have in this volume, then, and in every other collection of short stories, is a bunch of Buddhist catnaps.”

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I did read the first story, “Thanasphere”*, from this book last night and enjoyed it. Written in 1952, it’s a creepy speculation about what humanity might discover when they eventually reach “outer space.” Also shocking was the similarity between this story and a failed NaNoWriMo project I attempted last year(!) My story was set about ten years later, but also involved an unpleasant surprise for an early astronaut. (*Thanasphere is the fictional name suggested in the book as a name for he “outer shell” of the atmosphere where the atmosphere ends and “dead space” begins. Those familiar with Greek will appreciate the appropriateness of that term…)

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Have I forgotten about Vonnegut’s eight rules? No. Here they for your perusal:

“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.”

Sounds like pretty reasonable advice, don’t you think?