James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

KURT VONNEGUT, A MANTRA, and ME

I grew up wanting to be a writer. An only child who spent lonely afternoons and summers at the home of grandparents who lived in a neighborhood without kids, books and reading were (insert drumroll) my constant companions.

Yawn. How many times have we heard those very words out of some book nerd like me?

Truth was, I read novels and thought, what a cool way to spend your time, thinking up crap and writing it down. Especially when I read those Ian Fleming 007 adventures. Moreover, I was already used to being alone, so the act of reading, and writing, as it happened, came naturally.

Writing, in my blood. As I got older, I read more ambitiously. My favorite authors were people like John Irving, Stephen King, Pat Conroy, Kurt Vonnegut. Big names. I wrote for the school newspaper and yearbook, wrote my first real short stories, a few of which I still have. As a senior they made up an independent study for me to write whatever I felt like. Not too shabby.

The author at 17, in a photo staged for the yearbook to accompany a sidebar about my literary leanings.

The author at 17, in a photo staged for the yearbook to accompany a sidebar about my literary leanings.

So, when I got to college, the course of study I chose? To learn how to make movies.

I know, right?

That decision, another story. At least I still wanted to be a ‘writer,’ whatever that meant, only screenplays instead of literary novels.

After college, but still working at the big state university to which I’d matriculated, I worked with archival media instead of making my own cinematic magnum opuses. All the while I still dreamed what were now supposed to be the old dreams, the literary path I’d forsaken for screenplays and film stocks, actors and light meters.

As such, I leapt at opportunities to nurture my dormant literary leanings. I started scratching around at short stories, but I didn’t know what I was doing. Couldn’t fathom how a novel could be written. Every one I took a crack at writing barely made it out of the idea stage.

Lucky thing for me was that I could take a class each semester for free, a benefit of working for the university. I planned to do so soon—English classes. The Fiction Workshop. A way to make up for wasting all that time mucking around with movies.

Three years into my archivist career literally mucking around with old 35mm film reels that sat melting into flammable jelly, I saw that gentleman of letters Kurt Vonnegut had been scheduled to come and speak at the new arts center on the western edge of campus. One of the marquee authorial names whose corpus I’d devoured in my teens, to me Vonnegut loomed as a sardonic, perceptive if melancholic giant among mere scribblers.

I had to hear him speak. Who knew? I’d shake his hand, if I got the opportunity. I’d ask, I fantasized, and he’d let me in on the secret of how to be a writer.

What my copy looks like.

What my copy looks like.

Before leaving work on the night of the lecture, I grabbed the notebook in which I’d started journaling, and a couple of Vonnegut books: my worn old mass market paperback editions of Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions. I biked across campus to the venue, thinking about the journaling, a recommended method of priming and lubricating the writerly pump.

Sounded naughty, I thought, all this pump-priming. Something a teen boy might do, say, while holding a stroke book like Black Garter Belt. Kurt, hearing such a thought, would surely chuckle at this reference to his own work. If I hadn’t been biking at the time, I’d have written that down.

An amplified voice boomed out in the expansive lobby of the Koger Center: “Mr. Vonnegut will NOT be signing books tonight.”

The announcement sounded snippy and curt. I shouldn’t have been so eager to bring any of my thumbed paperbacks, some read multiple times. He’d have another chuckle at the sight of those natty old things, probably bought at a Waldenbooks in a mall in 1981. Everyone else clutched hardbacks in their hands, including a new volume put out by the university press, a book about which I had no clue. Never an English major, I wasn’t tuned into the literary world on campus.

A full house, bustling, jostling. I made my way through. It was mostly older people than me, but lots of students, too. I’m sure English professors throughout the Humanities building had assigned this lecture to their classes. One would hope.

Koger Center

In the balcony, I noted a couple of microphones on stands to either side of the long rows of curved seats in the venue designed for symphonies and high art—no book signing, but he would be entertaining a Q&A.

Perhaps I’d come up with a question. My heart pounded at the thought of speaking directly to the master. Waves of brine lapped at the back of my throat. Anxiety. Hamstrung by uncertainty and self-consciousness, I raced to no conclusive end of inquiry. My mind, body, and spirit, all three awfully cluttered in those days.

I’d gotten there a little late, probably because I wasted time debating not going at all, though I don’t specifically remember that part. I do remember that at the time I felt depressed about the path I’d chosen in life. I can admit that. This I realized, all right. Depression is not a vibration you can ignore.

In those days I carried with me a self-defeating attitude. I didn’t realize that I created this energy. I thought that this scattered and dissolute darkness was me.

I wondered how many of the attendees were frustrated writers like me, writers who didn’t write, and who were surely to come away from the experience no closer to being Kurt Vonnegut than if we’d never heard of him or his stupid books.

The lights went down. Unlike at a rock concert, no cheering. The hubbub continued until the stagelights came up and Vonnegut was introduced, an event greeted with hearty if tastefully academic-style applause.

Vonnegut gave his lecture. I remember a good deal of it, but then memory is funny, and I really really want to remember the time I saw Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut lecturing at Transylvania University in the 80s.

Vonnegut lecturing at Transylvania University in the 80s.

In the course of the talk, versions of which I’m sure Vonnegut gave often, (variations on the ‘Noodle Factory’ lecture, in this case of the following example), the author came around to mentioning his brush in the 60s with Transcendental Meditation. Esquire had sent him to write an article about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, one he called ‘Yes, We Have No Nirvanas.’

Vonnegut, turning his mordant and cynical eye upon the whole enterprise, had famously satirized TM and its ‘nonsense words’ that could be used to put people into relaxing trances, ‘easy as pie,’ a phrase he repeats a few times in the essay.

Like a mantra.

His comments on this occasion echoed earlier iterations of his gently mocking disdain. “Aye-eem,” he said. “That’s the mantra I was given. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. Now I’m giving it to all of you. ‘Aye-eem.’ There’s your mantra.” He might even have made us all say it with him.

As with all sets of memories from a particular experience, what also stands out now—what these days they call the takeaway—were the moments that had impact on me of an emotional nature: not so much what he said, but rather the clearly weary impatience of the speaker himself, who’d been forbidden from smoking onstage during his lecture and complained throughout about this indignity; the fact that he hated semicolons (or maybe I’ve simply read that famous dislike instead of actually hearing it that night); that they taught you in English class about how the narrative arc of most stories was like a pyramid, with rising and falling action, but that the most famous story in English letters, Hamlet, had a narrative arc like a flat line. That it was a ‘man in hole story,’ he said, one in which the man did not get out of the hole.

I’m pretty sure I wrote down ‘man in hole’ in my notebook. I better have done so, anyway.

Lastly, I recall with vivid and rueful clarity the insipid questions from the audience. These ran Vonnegut off the stage as much as the no-smoking rule, a novelty in those days, especially in a tobacco-as-king state like South Carolina.

A fraternity type stood up to the microphone on the far side from me. “You ever watch ‘Married with Children,’ Mr. Vonnegut?” It was a TV show of the time, a ribald, infantile dysfunctional-family sitcom on the Fox network. “I think its narrative arc is like Hamlet, too.”

 “I haven’t seen it,” Vonnegut said, looking bewildered. “I don’t watch much TV.”

“Well, you should,” the guy replied, nyuck-nyucking his way back to his seat, slapping five with some other dudes wearing ball caps with our school mascot, a red rooster. I despised those guys, wondered why in the hell they were here with their TV show talk.

A representative moment from Married With Children.

A representative moment from Married With Children.

Next, a man who’d been sitting in front of me stood, a guy that I realized in retrospect had been bristling at every hint and nod Vonnegut made to his humanist beliefs about humankind.

The gentlemen, shorn of hair and with small wire rim glasses, asked the author whom he addressed as ‘Mr. Vonnegut,’ what he had to say about how best man should ‘serve God,’ posing this in that sanctimonious and challenging way combative dogmatists of faith will often employ, a hint and edge to their words indicating their superiority and closeness to the ‘person’ of God—more’n you, anyway. More than a lousy humanist like this author hepcat, anyway.

“How best to serve God?” Vonnegut, not taking the bait, or maybe taking it, pondered and then answered, “I think it’s not to ask yourself how best you can serve God, but how best you can serve your community. Your fellow man.”

Applause. The tense questioner nodded with vigor, joining in with his own sincere-seeming hand clapping. Nobody could argue with that sentiment. How could you? If God was anything like what believers said—a creature of reasonable benevolence—surely He’d be pleased with an answer like Vonnegut’s.

Maybe ‘Mr. Vonnegut’ answered that way because he had served a community, once, with extreme prejudice: by handling all those burned bodies following the firebombing of Dresden. Maybe it’d been that more than his books which had constituted his service. If I’d had the guts, I’d have jumped up afterwards and asked that myself. The me of right now would do so.

KV humanist

Not long after, Vonnegut, fuming at both the questions as well as the facility’s wrongheaded policy on smoking materials, apologetically cut the talk short. “Sorry. Thanks, all. But I need to smoke.

“God,” he said in conclusion, “I love to smoke.”

Filing outside, I wanted to feel more fulfilled by the whole enterprise, but didn’t. Desperate to squeeze out any minor triumph I could muster, I committed to being on the side of the author, and after two years on the wagon immediately resumed smoking. (My wife would soon put a stop to that, though. Her health consciousness, like that of the Koger Center, has served me well.)

“Aye-eem,” I chanted on my bicycle ride the few blocks home to my duplex, in an old nearby mill village of aging saltbox houses on the other side of a confluence of railroad tracks. “Aye-eem.”

Sat on the couch in my office upstairs, tried the mantra some more. A massive freight train passing through a block away with horn blaring, though, ensured that my attempt at meditation failed. As it would for many years. Until, that is, my own writing career starting to pick up steam, and I reconnected with the practice.

My spiritual path, it’s been a circuitous one, as has been the journey to my present status as an author of novels and short stories. I’ve even got a career milestone coming next year, a literary novel coming from a press at the same university where the great writer Kurt Vonnegut gave me the mantra, that once published an academic volume about him, one of the first serious critical examinations of his work. I’ve also got a few other novels done and ready to be shopped.

The secret? I’ve never stopped writing, and dreaming. But mostly writing. Lot of work, making up this crap. The last few years, I’ve also been meditating, with more and more frequency until the practice has become a vital and important part of my daily routine. A part of the fabric of my work, and my life.

A manuscript of mine that's on the move these days with a presitgious publisher. Keep fingers crossed for me.

A manuscript of mine that’s on the move these days with a presitgious publisher. Keep fingers crossed for me.

“How do you do it?” is a question that’s often put to me about all the pages I manage to produce. My wife and I also own a retail business, which in itself is a full-time gig. (Anyone who thinks they can make a living, a real living to support a family, solely writing and selling fiction these days is nuts.) Anyway, my answer is always to cultivate patience, tenacity, and now for the last few years, a practice of yoga and meditation.

In the telling, sometimes I throw in the part about who gave me my mantra; sometimes not. Vonnegut’s not as famous as he used to be. If they know his name, they respond to this fact with excitement. I rarely mention that he did so as a joke, and also gave the mantra to many other people too. My little lie of omission.

When Vonnegut died, I felt bereaved. That weekend I wrote a short story for him, an allegorical one about a writer like him going to heaven. I mailed it out; it got rejected all over town, so to speak. But by sending it out in his name, I felt like a real writer.

NY Times Obit screenshot

NY Times Obit screenshot

That’s when I remembered the lecture and the mantra. The obits, the really detailed ones, anyway, mentioned the satire about TM and the Maharishi. I wondered, back then, what it would take to jump start my writing career that’d one day be summed up in an obit.

Among other lifestyle adjustments to this end, I reread some Vonnegut. Lost some weight. Started eating as clean as I could. And meditating. Daily, certainly, but now trying to get into afternoons as well as mornings. They say if you’re too busy to meditate for twenty minutes twice a day, then by definition you are unhealthily busy.

Of course, maybe it’s all hooey. “Aye-eem,” as Vonnegut mocked. “Look—I’m in a trance.”

Whatever works, works, though, and to this day I chant the mantra that Kurt Vonnegut, who needed to smoke like the archetypical character he describes—one that must want something, even a cup of coffee, more than anything else in the world—gave to me and everyone else that night in the Koger Center, frat boys and Christian warriors alike.

I wonder, still, if anyone else there got into meditation. If they still use the mantra.

At that point Vonnegut had been telling the TM story since the late 60s. As established, had ‘given’ the mantra out to countless packed lecture halls and auditoria. Hell, I wasn’t anything special. Just a kid who had anxiety, who had dreams, and who felt better about it all when he read books by cats like Kurt Vonnegut.

But thanks in large part to meditation that’s facilitated by the mantra the author gave me that night, my anxiety’s long gone, and my writerly dreams are coming true. It’s all of a piece, this world; it’s a lattice of connection and coincidence, a cat’s cradle of connections.

In any case, thanks, Kurt. With my writing career going well these days, I thought it was time to tell that story. Your words—the more supercilious the better, as it happened—made a difference in this character’s arc, which these days is anywhere but in a hole with Hamlet.

KV Signature

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

5 Replies

  1. Nice work Don. Enjoyed your story and its import. Thanks for sharing it. I’ll tell you my mantra some time if it will inspire you!

    Bentz

  2. Thank you, Bentz! I think I might submit this one around and see if it gets picked up.

  3. Really beautiful piece. “A lattice of connection,” indeed. Thank you!

    1. My pleasure, Margaret!

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