Kurt Vonnegut

Why I Got Kurt Vonnegut Tattooed on My Arm

When I was twelve-years-old I read Slaughterhouse-Five for the first time. I was absolutely enthralled, I had never read anything like it. I didn’t know you could write like that. Conversationally, controversially, about real life and an infinite universe all in one. I’m not sure what made more of an impression on lil ol’ me: the voice or the real-world-but-slightly-suspicious atmosphere, but I was into it. Really into it.


So into it, that when I was twenty-years-old, Vonnegut’s signature and self portrait became a permanent part of me.


My Vonnegut tattoo

If I have a single regret about this tattoo, it’s that it’s impossible to photograph. 


The University of Houston’s creative writing program is small, competitive, and renowned. As such, you’ve gotta put together an impressive twenty page portfolio for your application. My submission, which five years later looks completely different, was the story of my first period and how Jack Nicholson bought me tampons and showed me how to use them. It’s based in fact, but I definitely took some creative liberty. One of my favorite professors later told me it was “the best submission he had read that semester”, but that’s neither here nor there.


That’s one of the lessons Kurt (that’s what I call him) taught me – write what you know, but make it intriguing. 


When I was younger I would lie to my mother just because it was more interesting than the truth. She indulged me because it was only ever the small stuff, never anything that really mattered. At thirteen, when I didn’t want to tell her who I was going to the movies with (Morgan, male, who, a decade and a cross-country move later, is still in my core group), I alleged my ongoing relationship with a forty-year-old, heavily-tattooed biker named Snake. Snake stuck around through high school where he helped me out with unsupervised parties and dates with boys my mother wouldn’t approve of. A few years ago, I overheard a gorgeous bearded and tattooed biker introduce himself as Snake. My long con finally got interesting. 


Alongside eavesdropping and people watching, one of my favorite hobbies is blatantly lying to people I will never meet again. I don’t consider it lying, though. It’s more an exercise in creativity. I like to see just how ridiculous and unbelievable the words coming out of my mouth can get before I’m called out on my bullshit. In 2012, I didn’t have time for a costume change after a spectacularly formal affair (my own debutante ball) and the entire bar was lead to believe I had just been left at the altar and collectively paid for me to black out on White Russians. To be fair, I was wearing a wedding dress so my tale was particularly convincing.


Kurt Vonnegut isn’t the only voice-driven author I unknowingly formed my own writer’s identity around: Chuck Palahniuk, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and George Saunders are on that list. They all run in a similar circle. They’re open and honest and unapologetically themselves.


And whether or not I meant to, that’s what I became. I write like I talk, and I talk like I think, but I never learned how to think before I speak and I have a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept “too much information”. You could call me intense. I like to joke that I go full psycho from the beginning, that way no one can ever accuse me of not being myself. That’s something that stands true for all aspects of my life. I listen to my gut and follow my emotions and interests where they lead me, and they lead me to some pretty interesting places, thoughts, and people.


Life as we know it is incredibly beautiful, but it’s also miserable, and there’s no reason why that misery can’t also be beautiful. We’re alive for a blink of an eye, in the cosmic scale of things, so there’s no reason to avoid the often unavoidable misery (and beauty) of life. 


I got Kurt Vonnegut tattooed on my arm because of how I felt that first time I read Slaughterhouse-Five, or Cat’s Cradle, or Hocus Pocus. Because of that sense of wonder and excitement and inspiration. Because I finally opened my eyes and saw the world for what it is and what it could be, and I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. Because “the universe is a big place, perhaps the biggest,” and you can close your eyes and explore each and every crevice of it without ever getting up from your chair. I got Kurt Vonnegut tattooed on my arm because I wanted to carry that happiness around with me, and now I do.


My Vonnegut tattoo

Seriously, this is the clearest photo I have of it “in context”.


And as a bonus, here are ten of my favorite Vonnegut-isms, from me to you…


1. “Listen. All great literature is about what a bummer it is to be a human being.”

From “Cold Turkey,” In These Times, 2004.


2. “People need good lies. There are too many bad ones.”

From an interview with Wilfrid Sheed in LIFE, September 12, 1969, republished in Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, 1988.


3. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” 

From the introduction to Mother Night, 1961.


4. “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning to do afterward.”

From Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage, 1981.


5. “All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.” 

From the epigram of Timequake, 1997.


6. “Anything can make me stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn.”

From Cat’s Cradle: A Novel, 1963.


7. “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

From Player Piano: A Novel, 1952.


8. “That is how you get to be a writer, incidentally: you feel somehow marginal, somehow slightly off-balance all the time.”

From Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage, 1981.


9. “You can’t write novels without a touch of paranoia. I’m paranoid as an act of good citizenship, concerned about what the powerful people are up to.”

From an interview with Israel Shenker in The New York Times, March 21, 1969.


10. “Writers get a nice break in one way, at least: They can treat their mental illnesses every day.”

From an interview with Playboy, July 1973.


Featured image via Indy Star.