How I Made Friends With Kurt Vonnegut

I read this at Sara Benincasa’s book event at Brookline Booksmith last week. She asked me to “write something about mental illness or books…”

I tried to find the most literal intersection possible. This is the story of the time I had a nervous breakdown and made friends with Kurt Vonnegut.

But first, some background: Early in my sophomore year of college, I joined up with a group of lovable extroverts at Emerson College and we travelled to the Netherlands together. We lived in a castle, in a little Dutch village. Just 80 American students, a brawny grounds-keeper named Hubert, and our dragoness headmistress, Dulcia.

I took about seven art history classes that semester and every weekend was a three-day weekend. You got a Eurail pass and just…went. Went wherever. Berlin, The Czech Republic, Paris, wherever you wanted to go.

Sure, someone drunkenly (cocainedly?) jumped into the medieval moat. And yes, I gained 15 pounds of nutella weight. But it was, as you can imagine, a magical time.

Everyone kind of fell in love with each other. Our Netherlands experience was like the last month of 8th grade, when everyone stops bullying each other for a short, blessed spate of time. When you might see the gothy kid with a pubey moustache at the same party as the popular kid…with the pubey moustache.

It was just like that only our experience lasted a whole semester and involved a bunch of wine and some of the most talented and creative people I’d ever met.

However, I intended for that semester to be my last hoorah with Emerson College. Emerson’s fun people, with their fun scarves excited me, but something was missing.

There was a part of me who wanted to be serious. Like, real, doctor serious. Academically serious. And that’s why I transferred to Smith College in Northampton Mass.

I’ll preface the next part of my story by saying that Smith is a fantastic school and if I had the kind of self-awareness and perspective at 20 as I do at 30, it would have been a great time.

But sadly, I did not possess said perspective.

When my new roommate showed me her pencil-eraser collection, I smiled politely.

When, each time she shut her mystery novel and sang, “dun dun dunnnn” I looked with on with concerned amusement.

When she became furious at my concerned amusement, I left the room and went for a walk.

When, during Schindler’s List, she passionately proclaimed that Ralph Fiennes was the ultimate total hottie during the scene when he’s shooting Jewish prisoners from his balcony, I began to feel hopeless.

This particular relationship mirrored my relationship with Smith as a whole. Bit by bit, it just kept getting more terrible. I couldn’t find the quirky musicians and poets and comedians no matter where I looked. I just kept running into different iterations of my roommate. She seemed to be everywhere.

I was lonely.

I’ll spare you the gorier details, but I spiraled down pretty fast. Especially coming off of my magical castle experience, it was tough to take. I’d put my eggs in this basket, made a big deal out of it, engaged my parents time and money and here I was …failing.

I cried every morning. I tacked on five pounds of depression weight to the existing nutella weight. I needed my mom on the phone to coax me out of bed. I remember trying to have a teary conversation with a tree one night. Unfortunately, that’s a true story.

I don’t remember how I found out that Kurt Vonnegut was the writer in residence on campus, but when I did, I felt a thrill. The first thrill I’d felt in months.

He was critiquing student work and had open office hours. I didn’t have anything written worth critiquing, so I threw together a fictionalized autobiographical story about some profoundly suburban experience I had in  9th grade.

It was sloppy, uninteresting, and trite. It was just terrible. And I rushed to submit it. To Kurt Vonnegut.

I had at some point read Slaughterhouse 5 – but that was back in high school and all I remembered was a vague sense of accomplishment at having finished it.

It should also be noted that the things I read, in general, are about hobbits, boy wizards, or vampires (judge away). So, I was uniquely unqualified to sit down with the legendary author.

I remember approaching his tiny office in the back of the stacks and thinking I must be in the wrong place. No one was there. No one. Kurt Vonnegut was holding open office hours at a liberal arts college and no one was there to see him, but me.

“Hi…Mr. Vonnegut,” I knocked on his open door.

“Come in, sit down. Nice to meet you. Are you Erin?”

Yeah. I totally was.

I don’t remember exactly what he said about my story, but it was something like, “This is the worst kind of sentimental, and not very exciting. You should kill somebody. I don’t care if it’s autobiographical. Just kill somebody. Please.”

And then I nodded, he put my story down, and he asked me how Smith was going.

So I told him. Not about the Nazi roommate stuff, although in retrospect I bet he’d have appreciated that bit.

I asked him how Smith was going for him…and, unexpectedly, he seemed to be having a similar experience. The school wasn’t the right fit for either of us.

I asked if I could visit him again during office hours, and he said sure.

That’s how Kurt Vonnegut and I became buds. He hated my writing but didn’t mind my sitting in his office and chatting.

I told Kurt how I felt like I was letting my parents down because I was having such a tough time, and how I felt like I was missing something by not being around the kind of creativity there was at Emerson.

He gave me two lasting pieces of advice.

  1. You’re crazy. But everyone’s some kind of crazy. Your kind of crazy is that you want to do everything all at once. You can do everything, but you’ve got to do it one thing at a time.
  2. Don’t walk. Run back to Boston.

So I took his advice. Well, I didn’t run. The twenty extra nutella-slash-depression pounds wouldn’t allow for that kind of athletic feat. But I did take a bus back to Boston and I re-enrolled at Emerson.

The last time I saw him was as my bus was driving down Main Street, past the Academy of Music. He was sitting on a bench outside. Not writing, not reading, not eating a sandwich. Just sitting there in the middle of town. Just a funny looking old man in a ratty cardigan to everyone passing him by.

I spent my last two years at Emerson thoroughly enjoying all the idiot improvisers, furrow-browed essayists, and even the broadcast journalism majors. Who were, you know, there.

Periodically over the last ten years, it’s been really helpful to remember the wise words from my only Smith College friend: You’re crazy. But everyone’s some kind of crazy.

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