Legendary science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut on the definition of Moxie and how it relates to writing.

Written by Cole Schafer


I landed my first writing gig with Entrepreneur Magazine after firing-off notes to half a dozen editors.

Eventually, one of them grew tired of freezing his ass off in an inbox full of cold emails and decided to shoot me something back:

“Please send us over a few pitches and please, please, stop emailing us.”

Fast-forward a few weeks and this bright-eyed bushy-tailed writer found himself slinging ink for one of the more heavily read business magazines on the planet.

While I certainly had some potential (you can see glimpses of it in this piece I wrote about a coconut vendor), I was a far cry from being considered a writer with chops.

What saved me (or what made me rather), was something Kurt Vonnegut once described as “Moxie”.

The definition of Moxie.

A little while back, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s students, Suzanne McConnell, wrote a beautiful book titled Pity The Reader, where she picks apart the late Sci-Fi writer’s style and philosophy on writing.

One of my favorite excerpts was towards the end of the text where McConnell riffs on Kurt Vonnegut’s deep belief in something called “Moxie”.

If you were to pluck a dictionary off your bookshelf like a dusty plum, the definition of Moxie would be defined as a force of character, determination or nerve –– which I find to be rather boring.

However, McConnell paints an entirely different definition by sharing a story about Vonnegut and a rather relentless student that was dead set on taking one of his classes.

We don’t have all day so I will summarize.

A writer by the name of Daniel Gleason tries to enroll in one of Vonnegut’s writing classes only to find it has filled up. Who would have thought? Not taking no for an answer, the young aspiring writer goes to see Vonnegut in his office and asks that he make some room.

Vonnegut tells Gleason what he already knows… that there is no more room.

Gleason doesn’t take another no for an answer and shows up to the couple hundred person class the following day anyway.

Vonnegut spots him. He does a double-take. And, looking a bit bewildered, he asks him if he’s supposed to be in the class.

Gleason responds, “Yeah, you don’t remember me from last class?”

Vonnegut just shrugs and continues teaching the class.

Months go by, Gleason keeps showing up to class and one day Vonnegut spots him in the Student Union and tells him to take a seat, “Didn’t you hand in a story about three teenage boys who hide out at some whorehouse?”

Gleason says yes.

Vonnegut continues, “I really like that story. But, level with me. You aren’t supposed to be in that class, are you?”

Gleason responds, “I don’t guess I am.”

Vonnegut then gets a great big grin that hangs like a half moon from earlobe to earlobe and says, “Hell, I knew that. But I let you stay because I liked your moxie.”

Refusing to go unread.

When you look at the greats in any given field (not just literature), this quality of moxie seems to come up again and again.

Stephen King used to hook every rejection letter he received onto a great big nail he pounded into the wall above his desk.

The founders of Airbnb sold cereal boxes to dig themselves out of $20,000 in debt.

Edwin Barnes took a job as a janitor at Edison’s laboratory to one day have the chance to go into business with him.

Moxie isn’t the same as simply being “relentless”. While relentless could best be defined as refusing to quit, Moxie is refusing to go unheard, unread or unseen.

By Cole Schafer.