Dissecting Vonnegut’s “How to Write With Style,” Part 2

This post is part of a new series called ‘The Writer’s Pool.’ I will be drawing from the wealth of knowledge from the world’s greatest writers to explore their advice, techniques, tools, and more.

Last post, I only touched the surface of Vonnegut’s essay. We looked at the question with which he starts his work, “Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it?” My answer was, because style is really about finding the best way to communicate your ideas. It’s not about sounding trendy or mimicking another writer but reaching your reader in a way that is meaningful to them.

Vonnegut goes on and says something very challenging. “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.” Ouch. This could be the place where many a young writer gives up. There is a lot of self-doubt in writing fiction. And perhaps some of the most talented writers stop because they think what they are writing isn’t interesting.

Ironically, their willingness to question their work could make them a very good writer (meanwhile, so many writers who never doubt their work end up producing garbage). Vonnegut asks this question, not so you would throw up your hands in defeat, but so that you (again) take a good hard look at what you are writing. And perhaps more importantly, why?

So, how can you figure out what is interesting and what is not? I guess, on a certain level, interest like taste is subjective. Something might be interesting to you—but not to anyone else. Growing up, I knew a boy who was obsessed with trains. I couldn’t stand this kid, for other reasons. But one thing I knew about John was that he couldn’t get enough of trains. Years later, he popped up on Facebook. His profile picture, as an adult man, was him standing beside an old fashion steam train.

I guess he never gave up his love of trains. They were interesting to him. Certainly not to me. If he had been a writer, he might have produced long works about the glories of the locomotive. But would others have cared to read it? I’m sure there are people out there who share his love of trains, if he could find them.

How do you know your interests are, in fact, interesting? You can’t be the judge yourself. And I don’t think the answer is by trying to find out what is interesting by looking at the latest bestsellers. Trends change very quickly and are manipulated by the publishing monopoly. What is “interesting” today will be dull in a few weeks by their own doing, because they need to keep things fresh to sell more books (if they can sell more books).

Vonnegut gives us some insight into how to know if what you’re writing is interesting. He goes on to say, “Did you ever admire an emptyheaded writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.” It seems that he thinks an interesting writer is someone with something to say. By contrast, a writer who is boring is “emptyheaded.” They might have a mastery of language. They can make words jump off the page with style. But they are idiots and by that virtue are boring.

It seems the key to being interesting is that you actually care about what you are writing. I think this is something we need to get buttoned down in our heads. Chasing a trend or genre, because you think it will sell, is not the way to go. Sure, it might have worked for Nicholas Sparks, but do you want to be credited with writing “A Walk to Remember”? I don’t think so.

Sparks and others like him might have found tremendous success by gaming the system, but few can try that and produce something people want to read. And you might find yourself writing something that a certain group loves, but you hate. Do you want to internally hate yourself for years to come, because you chased a trend? Writers already struggle with enough self-loathing as it is! Why add to your grief?

Becoming interesting, regardless, seems to be a skill in and of itself. Like an acquired taste, you have to work at it. Read outside your preferred genre. Try new foods. Go to events you’d never thought you’d like. Read the Arts section of the newspaper (or news website). You might hate everything you experience. But you’ve broadened your horizons and exposed yourself to thoughts you wouldn’t have otherwise. And some of that will work its way into your creative brain and improve your ideas.

This process is kind of like stretching. Your brain is used to certain routines, processes, and ruts. If you don’t force yourself to experience something new from time to time, your ideas can easily get stale. And that includes what you write about and how. It might not immediately connect with style, but as we’ve seen, style is much more than just how impressive your writing can be. It’s about finding the best way to communicate your ideas to your readers. But if your ideas aren’t holding them, style doesn’t really matter, does it?