A seven-word telegram

So I am now in the abashed condition, five days after my fifty-sixth birthday, of realizing that I needn’t have bothered to write several books. A seven-word telegram would have done the job.

After a break to read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, I am reading Kurt Vonnegut again.

Jailbird. It is going to be good.

The quotation above is from the prologue of Jailbird. Kurt Vonnegut published those words in 1979. He was fifty-six when he wrote them. He is no longer fifty-six. He is also no longer alive. If Kurt Vonnegut were to find out about this, here is what he would say:

“So it goes…”

The last Kurt Vonnegut book I read was Galapagos. I read it earlier this year. It was about big brains. A lot of people I know are thinking about brains more than usual these past few days as a dear, dear friend prepares to have doctors probe into his, looking for invaders.

If I were just now starting to read Galapagos for the first time, I would think: “Wow, what coincidental timing!”

It seems to be that I often need to ramble on through a lot of words to get to ones I was actually looking for from the start. In the process I end up out in the field, up a mountain, searching the ocean floor. I say things that I don’t mean, things that are wrong, things that are overstated, things that are unintelligible. Then I forget what I was after in the first pace.And after that, I take a walk and the path opens up in front of me; the right words are waiting to be picked up as I walk along.

I used to think this inefficiency was just my problem, but now I suspect that it is not. It seems that many people can draw a line between their ability to create, and their ability to know when to take a walk.


There is a lot of talk these days about the beauty of failing fast, failing often, just plain failing. The idea is that sometimes you need to produce a lot of crap before you get to whatever it is you are actually supposed to be doing well. The idea is also that most of us are not very good at judging what will be crap in advance, so it’s better to try, fail, and move on than to do nothing.I even heard Beck say such a thing on All Songs Considered not too long ago. He said there should be room for more bad music in the world. If Beck says it, it must be true.

I, for one, am glad Kurt Vonnegut took the time to jot down several books, even if a seven-word telegram might have been quicker to write and quicker to read. In fact, it seems to me that a person doesn’t get to the seven-word telegram until they’ve written their books first.

A seven-word telegram
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