Does anyone remember Prodigy, or am I really dating myself here?
A long time ago, during an era when dragons hid in caves beneath mountains, I used a dial-up modem to access something new and obscure called the World Wide Web. I signed up for a program called Prodigy, which assigned me an Internet addres made up of letters and numbers. Prodigy offered a few early online services, including opportunities to send questions to featured experts and celebrities. One day they invited users to send questions in to a writer named Kurt Vonnegut, who would choose a few questions and respond.
I was freelancing as a journalist for small newspapers at the time, and had taken a writing course at The New School and a graduate poetry workshop. Steeped in journalistic training and form, I was struggling to free my mind and write creatively. I just couldn’t figure out if I had anything to say. So I typed out a question on my desktop computer, and sent it in to Prodigy.
The question was: “How do I find my inner voice?”
To my shock, Kurt Vonnegut responded to my question in the form of an email to my letters-numbers Prodigy address. I printed his response and framed it, and to this day, when I teach a class, I often read it to students. Now I’ll share it here, in case it might be helpful to anyone who is reading my blog:
“I’ve taught creative writing, at Harvard, at City College, and at University of Iowa. You can teach creative writing to some extent, in that you can help people who are gifted in the first place to make the most of their gift. What I teach, more than how to find the inner voice, is how to be sociable, how to take care of the reader – in effect, how to be a good date. People can simply not read you if you don’t take them into consideration. The problem I find with most writers is not the lack of an inner voice, but lack of sociability. As far as the inner voice goes, I’ve said that when I teach creative writing, I have the student open his or her mouth and I reach into the person’s mouth, and reach for the back of the person’s throat, being very careful not to touch the epiglottis so they don’t gag. There’s a piece of tape back there and I take a hold of the end of the tape and pull it out very slowly, and then the student and I both read what’s written there. – And that’s his or her message to the world.”
Sometimes, I admit, I still find myself reaching for that tape. But since that day, I have always tried to be sociable on the page.