By Jolie Breeden
Kurt Vonnegut dissed me. Shut me down, blew me off, dismissed with the slightest movement of his gray and grizzled head. It was, perhaps, the best thing that could have happened.
Not that I wanted to be disdained by my most vaunted and esteemed literary hero, even if it did, ultimately, give me a lame claim to fame—how many people can say Kurt Vonnegut made them cry? Still, it was a worthy lesson and I was lucky to learn it early.
I was 24, idealistic, and on the writing road. Every fiber of my being was invested in becoming a novelist and I knew, eventually, I would reach that lofty goal (I still know it, despite evidence to the contrary). I read widely, and examined the machinations of all authors I deemed worthy. None, however, ever seemed to match up to the concise and witty brilliance of Vonnegut.
So when, for my 25th birthday, my husband Steve presented me with outrageously expensive tickets to hear Vonnegut speak at a small fundraiser for the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities, I was beyond thrilled. Just to merely, for a moment, occupy the same building… nay, the same room!… as the venerated Vonnegut seemed an impossible hope to have come to fruition.
But come to fruition, it did. We appeared at the Inverness Hotel in the Denver Tech Center and so did he. We all dined on some conference center-y luncheon fare. Vonnegut gave a speech, every word of which I hung upon (although I can’t recall a thing he said today). Afterwards, Steve bought me two first editions at a silent auction. As we walked to the car, I was satiated and complete. But, it seemed, the Universe was about to smile even wider…
As we approached our ancient, primer-patched Volvo, who was standing next to it but Vonnegut himself! From his casual stance at the end of the car, one might have even thought he had been waiting there for us (…Hello, I notice you young, threadbare kids at this event full of rich old white people and took you for true acolytes. I picked this tortured vehicle out of a sea of BMWs and thought it must be yours. Considering you must have spent a third of your monthly salary to be here, I decided to wait and say thanks for your devotion…). As we approached the car, my stomach seized, my mouth dried up and I slowed considerably. I was short of breath. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. But Steve, ever practical, said:
“Hey, there’s Kurt Vonnegut! You should have him sign your books, then they’ll really be worth something.”
“I can’t,” I hissed. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”
“Yes you can,” he said, laying a reassuring hand on the small of my back. “If you don’t, you’ll kick yourself forever.”
I’m good at kicking myself. So good, in fact, that prospect of a lifelong kicking coupled with the fact that I knew Steve was right, launched me on wobbly knees into the atmosphere of the great writer, and I warbled a meek and expectant, “Excuse me? Mr. Vonnegut?”
Vonnegut didn’t so much as clear his throat. There was the slightest twitch of his head, and his old rheumy eyes merely said no. Before I could even register the meaning, some minion, obviously well-versed in such micro movements, swooped in and repelled me with a barrage of “not now” and “Mr. Vonnegut is very tired” and other protective publicist spells. Although I was easily shunned, he had a harder time with Steve, who’s natural belligerence and firm belief that no one is more exalted than himself had equipped him to skillfully launch a counter attack. Alas, it was to no avail. During the fray, Vonnegut had retreated to the back seat of his own car, quite safe from prying fans and their bellicose husbands. His lackey soon joined him, and I was left in the parking lot, holding a first edition Deadeye Dick against my chest like a breastplate. The tears had already started to flow, and I’m sure if it weren’t for that book my heart might still be lying in that parking lot today.
In the weeks after, I couldn’t even hear the word Vonnegut. And that was hard, since it was every where. It was my computer password, on framed book covers, on bottles of special Wynkoop brews that I had saved and put on shelves. Each reference or sighting tore open a fresh wound of mortification. I reeled from such a cold dismissal from a member of my karass; my unwitting participation in what was only a granfalloon. How could I have been so wrong?
I did not, however, swear off Vonnegut. I continued to read, and as the bruise healed, I became more level-headed about his genius and how it fit into other works of genius—including my own. I also continued to analyze the situation over and over. There was my perhaps-he-is-ill-and-dying phase, followed by my perhaps-he’s-an-asshole-that-fooled-the-world phase. Followed by many other such phases until I reached my current one—perhaps-he’s-only-a-human-that-writes-good-books.
That’s the phase that did it; the phase that freed me from the oppression of having heroes. For although heroes can open your eyes to the possibilities of human achievement, they can also suppress it. There is a tendency to think of a hero as more than human, and therefore their feats are not necessarily in the reach of mere mortals. That day in the parking lot, when a tired old man turned his face from his starriest-eyed fan, was the beginning of my ability to bring that barrier down.
I’ve had some big wins as a writer. I no longer feel like an imposter when I call myself that. I’ve learned my craft, been published, continue to build and grow. I might never create a body of work as eminent as Vonnegut. I might never strike a chord among readers the way he did. Or I might. But if I do or if I don’t, the reason lies in my greatness — something I might not have seen if I hadn’t stopped worshipping his.
Jolie Breeden is a writer, editor, social media bumbler, and journalism refugee. When not draining veins for writing projects professional and personal, she can be found hanging with her super genius spawn and their haughty puppy in the foothills of Colorado.