Monday, May 31, 2021

Kurt Vonnegut's Gut-wrenching Letter from 1945

It’s Memorial Day. An appropriate day to read Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s powerful first letter home after surviving as a German POW during World War II.

Dear people:

I’m told that you were probably never informed that I was anything other than “missing in action.” Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the letters I wrote from Germany. That leaves me a lot of explaining to do — in precis:

I’ve been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler’s last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges’ First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight – so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I’m told, but I’ll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren’t wounded. For that much thank God.

Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations — the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn’t room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year’s Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t.

Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: — one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden — possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to (‘the Saxony-Czechoslovakian border’?). There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39’s) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.

Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy about Americans. The Russians picked us up in Dresden. We rode from there to the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We’ve since been flown to Le Havre.

I’m writing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repatriation Camp. I’m being wonderfully well feed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I’ll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I’ll be given twenty-one days recuperation at Atterbury, about $600 back pay and — get this — sixty (60) days furlough.

I’ve too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait, I can’t receive mail here so don’t write.

May 29, 1945


Kurt – Jr.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Half Full or Half Empty?

“The job interviewer placed half a glass of water on the desk and asked me
if I was an optimist or a pessimist. I drank the water and told him I was a problem solver.”

Friend and business mentor, Steve Seymour, told me this story from the early days of his career.

Ever since I have waited for someone to plunk a glass in front of me and ask the same question.

It hasn’t happened. But I’m ready if it does.

Of course, there are other ways to answer the “Is the glass half full or half empty?” question, including:

  • The glass is actually full … half full of water and half full of air.

  • The glass is 2 times bigger than it needs to be.

  • If you’re applying for a job as an engineer, consider rephrasing the answer above: “The volumetric capacity of the vessel is approximately twice of that which is required to contain the entirety of the liquid.”

  • I don’t care … I’m just grateful to have something to drink.

  • Both. The bottom is half full and the top is half empty.

  • Depends on how thirsty I am.

  • Doesn’t matter. The glass is refillable.

  • Depends. Are you dying from thirst or suffocation? Given the situation, what might be mistaken for nothing, might be more valuable than the water.

  • If you're applying for a job in marketing, ask: "Which is the more effective way to position this with the target audience? Half full or half empty?"

  • If you’re applying for a job in IT support, consider suggesting: “Try emptying the glass and then refilling it.”

  • If you’re applying for a job as a business analyst, try: “Move the air to the bottom and the liquid to the top to make it more accessible.”

  • If you’re applying for a job as a psychologist, consider this response: “The glass’s water part refers to positives in life, such as available options and potentials. The empty part of the glass refers to negatives in life, such as hindrances and limitations. To have a healthy outlook, you must acknowledge both.” Or you could just ask: "How does this glass make you feel?"

  • If you’re applying for a job teaching English literature, ask: "What is the symbolism of the glass not being completely full?"

  • If you’re running for political office, say: "The glass would be emptier if the opposition were in charge." If you’re a member of the opposition suggest: “The glass would be full if we were in charge.”

  • If you're applying for an advanced degree in quantum mechanics, cover the glass with a black cloth and refer to it as "Schrödinger's glass of water."

  • If you're applying for a job as an accountant, suggest: "The glass is 50% in the red."

  • If you're applying for a job as a nutritionist, consider stating: "There isn't enough water for a person's daily needs."

  • If you're applying for a job in sales, respond with "Let's talk a bout the benefits of ice."

  • If you need to stall for time, try: “Hey. That's a nice glass.”

Me? I’m emulating Steve. I’m chugging the water and responding: “I’m a problem solver.” 

I might even slam the empty glass on the desktop for emphasis.

The rest of the story. 

When he told me about this moment from his past, Steve added that, in retrospect, it was a ridiculous question to ask in an interview and, if he were ever asked if he was an optimist or a pessimist that way in a business situation, he'd throw the water on questioner and say, "I'm an asshole."

Thursday, May 27, 2021

What Can a Copywriter Learn From a Comedy Writer?

Tips on writing from John Swartzwelder.

John Swartzwelder is the legendary writer for the animated TV series The Simpsons. He wrote 59 scripts for the show, more than any other writer in the series history, and is credited as playing a key role in shaping the show into the cultural phenomenon it is today.

The John Swartzwelder method for writing

Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” 

Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. 

All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. 

I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.

Swartzwelder guest appearance on The Simpsons

Since leaving The Simpsons in 2003, Swartzwelder has been writing and self-publishing novels, most featuring Frank Burly, an incompetent private eye and occasional time traveler.

Nobody wants to read a book. You’ve got to catch their eye with something exciting in the first paragraph, while they’re in the process of throwing the book away. If it’s exciting enough, they’ll stop and read it. 

In his book Dead Men Scare Me Stupid, Swartzwelder follows his own advice opening with 

Well, they found Amelia Earhart. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, they found her in the trunk of my car.”

Of course, the opening line is just that. An opening line.

Then you’ve got to put something even more exciting in the second paragraph, to suck them in further. And so on. It’s exhausting for everybody, but it’s got to be done.

The Copywriting Connection

Swartzwelder started his writing career as a copywriter for boutique advertising agencies, such as Hurvis, Binzer & Churchill and Van Brunt & Co., both Chicago.

All ad copywriters are expected to write humor or scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo or any other kind of writing, whatever’s needed for the campaign. And they’re expected to write it fast, too, because it’s due tomorrow. Good training, actually.


For comedy writers, a huge compliment is to have one of their jokes called “Swartzweldian.” A Swartzweldian joke is unique, surprising, and sounds almost as if as if it’s always existed. In the words of Matt Selman "uniquely dumb and smart at the same time."

A Swartzweldian example: Outside a pawn shop, Homer stands on a stack of barrels and offers a toast to the crowd: “To alcohol. The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.

Matt Selman. Swartzwelder The Great - 4/12/08 - Time
Mike Sacks. John Swartzwelder, Sage of “The Simpsons” - 5/2/21 - The New Yorker

Friday, May 7, 2021

It Was Never Really About Drills or Holes

It's more than "don't sell drills, sell holes."

Why do they want a hole?

To put a peephole in their front door?  So they can see who's at the door before opening it?

So, you're not selling a drill or a hole ... you're selling safety.

Now take it to the next level:

Paint a picture of them feeling secure in their home with the safety feature they wanted.

The drill is just a way to get to that transition from feeling unsafe to feeling safe ...


... it was never really about drills ... or holes.

The Parking Spot Next to the Front Door

“You could sell sawdust to a lumber mill,” said my boss as he threw his arm around Byron’s shoulders. The team applauded as Byron held up th...