In 2006, some students at Xavier High School in New York were given a writing assignment: write their favorite author in an attempt to get him or her to visit the school. Five of those students chose to write Kurt Vonnegut.
Vonnegut did not end up visitng the school, but he did write a letter in response. That now famous response was brief and wonderful and its premise both simple and profound: practice any art in order to better yourself.
I opine that Vonnegut's words extend beyond the scope of his letter, past "any art" as he suggests to the students, but instead into any act. Practice science, or philosophy, or running, or law. Practice being alone, being with others, loving yourself, loving someone else. As Vonnegut describes it — become. Become.
The letter, in its entirety, is here.
November 5, 2006
Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:
I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don't make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, 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.
Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you're Count Dracula.
Here's an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don't do it: 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. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
God bless you all!