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Teaching the Unteachable by Kurt Vonnegut, published in The New York Times on Aug. 6, 1967

By cindy.dashnaw on April 15, 2013. Excerpted here with permission from The New York Times.

You can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do. Most bright people know that, but writers’ conferences continue to multiply in the good old American summertime. …

… Nothing is known about helping real writers to write better. I have discovered almost nothing about it during the past two years. I now make to my successor at Iowa a gift of the one rule that seemed to work for me: Leave real writers alone.

I haven’t mentioned the poets … because I don’t know much about them. The poets talk all the time, like musicians, and this drives prose writers nuts. The poets are always between jobs, so to speak, and the prose writers are hung up on projects requiring months or years to complete.

The idea of a conference for prose writes is an absurdity. They don’t confer, can’t confer. It’s all they can do to drag themselves past one another like great, wounded bears.

One thing I’m glad about: I got to see academic critics at Iowa. I had never seen academic critics before. They are felt to be tremendously creative people, and are paid like movie stars. I found that instructive.

When I saw my first academic critic, I said to a student, “Great God! Who was that?”

The student told me. Since I was so shaken, he asked me who I had thought the man was.

“The reincarnation of Beethoven,” I said.

Mr. Vonnegut is working on a new novel, “Slaughterhouse 5.” A musical version of “Cat’s Cradle,” an earlier novel, will open on Broadway this year.

Read the full article at NYTimes.com

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