When students wrote to Kurt Vonnegut for a school assignment, they didn’t expect a letter with valuable advice.

*Featured image contains photo by Andrea Piacquadio

As a teacher, it can be challenging to come up with creative assignments that both engage students and help them learn what they need to according to the approved curriculum. When teachers assign activities like writing to famous people, they don’t really expect a response.

However, an English teacher who gave an assignment like this to her pupils in 2006 got an unexpected result.

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Ms. Lockwood, an English teacher at Xavier High School, decided to give a simple assignment to her students: write to a famous author and ask for their advice. Ms. Lockwood certainly didn’t expect for any of the authors to respond.

The point of the exercise was to engage the class and practice writing skills. However, to her surprise, one famous author did reply — Kurt Vonnegut! Five students in her class had written to him, and his response addressed all five of them as well as Ms. Lockwood herself. His advice was valuable. 

How Kurt Vonnegut Didn’t Stop Writing Despite Setbacks

person wearing long sleeve black shirt writing on a white paper
Photo by cottonbro

Kurt Vonnegut is one of America’s most iconic writers, most famous for his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. His writing style is satirical and full of dark humor. Before Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut was not a successful novelist. In fact, he once gave up writing to pursue a teaching career due to financial strains and an ever-growing family.

Nevertheless, he didn’t stop writing. He continued to work on his craft simply for the love of it. His advice to Ms. Lockwood’s class drew from his own life. He first thanked them for the letter and for cheering him up in his old age. He then told them to:

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fictions, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Kurt Vonnegut

He then gave them an assignment: “Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood…”

How Kurt Vonnegut Proves the Importance of Art

He advised them to tear the poem up once they had completed it and spread the torn up pieces of paper into trash cans across the city. He told the students that they would find that even though they hadn’t made any money or received any validation from their peers or their teacher, they would still feel rewarded and fulfilled. They would feel what he describes as ‘becoming,’ and that they would have learned a little more about what is inside them — what a wonderful reward, indeed! 

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The fact that Kurt Vonnegut answered the Xavier High School students’ letters is amazing on its own. Even better though, is the message Vonnegut put out into the world: practicing art for art’s sake is self-care for the soul.

Being able to express ourselves through different mediums and be creative is so important and it is one of the best ways to take care of our mental health and feel rewarded in every day life.


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“When you feel passionate about your work, there is no great difference between the way you feel on Monday morning and the way you feel on Saturday morning.” – Larry Smith