Kurt Vonnegut had been invited to speak at my university and my English professor arranged a little meet-and-greet with Vonnegut after his speech. This little private reception ended up being a line of students, each of us waiting our turn to shake this literary legend’s hand and ask him a question. What was I supposed to ask Kurt Vonnegut? I had read Slaughterhouse-Five and Galapagos, but what about those books was worth a question? Would I look stupid if I asked about something that should have been plainly obvious to any half-witted reader?
I had come unprepared for this. In my mind, the reception was going to be Vonnegut sipping a glass of wine amidst of a circle of students, talking about writing and maybe answering the questions a few of the braver students might have the courage to ask. I was hoping to be a bystander, a silent witness soaking it all in so that one day I could tell people about the time I met Kurt Vonnegut. I didn’t think I’d have to shake his hand and come up with a smart question.
My anxiety grew as my turn neared. It was too late to drop out of the line without drawing attention to myself. At the last moment, it came to me. A decent, safe question.
“What was it like seeing your book made into a movie?” I asked as he steadied my trembling hand with a handshake.
He then gave me this look I’ll never forget, a look that said, “That was the stupidest, most inane question anyone has ever asked me.” It was a look of bewilderment mixed with disdain.
I had brought with me my copy of Slaughterhouse-Five that I wanted him to sign, but after this, there was no way I could come up with the courage to ask for that favor. I held the book to my chest as a shield (Vonnegut protecting me from Vonnegut) not knowing what to do next. He didn’t answer the question. The awkward moment lingered, and he finally shook his head in disappointment as if to say, “you have one question and this is the question you ask me?” He looked to the next person in line, and I meekly shuffled out of the way. I retreated to the back of the room, further disheartened by the enlightened conversation between Vonnegut and the next student in line.
Years later, I would come to see my experience as a wasted opportunity. It was as if I had traveled all the way to the Oracle of Delphi and asked, “What do you think about this rotten weather we’ve been having?” If I were to go back to that reception with Vonnegut and do it again, this is the question I might ask: How does a writer allay the self-doubt and fear of rejection that constantly gnaws away at the ego? But then again, maybe there’s no answer to this question either.