Audacious Ideas: Postcard Life Stories

Audacity defines the best and worst within us. It is boldness or daring, accompanied by confident or arrogant disregard for personal safety, conventional thought or other restrictions. It is also effrontery, insolence or shamelessness. The “Audacious Ideas” essay series celebrates this theme, which serves as the basis of our Summer 2012 print issue.

Conventional wisdom says that you need to write volumes before you can adequately address the complexity of someone’s life. A biography, a novel. At least 50,000 words, maybe as many as 175,000. Even a short story requires somewhere between 1000 and 20,000 words, but the scope is proportionately narrowed. “Something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing,” people tell you, mouthing what short story writer Raymond Carver said that short story writer and critic VS Pritchett was said to have said.

Michael Kimball, looking for life stories

Since people have told me, wagging their invisible fingers, that my short stories read more like novels, imagine my delight when I came upon Michael Kimball’s 500-word stories–well within the range of flash fiction–that had the audacity to attempt to encompass a person’s entire lifespan to date, whether that be one year or 100. Never mind that Michael’s stories were intended to be entirely true. I’d never found the distinction between “truth” and “fiction” particularly useful. We all become “unreliable narrators” once we start to tell a story, and “fictional truth,” therefore, can be found in all forms of writing.

Right after I completed my first “Audacious Ideas” essay, which featured “outsider” art, I started to look for examples of what could be considered literary equivalents. This led me back to Michael. So I asked if he could write up something–in approximately 500 words–about how his Postcard Life Stories Project came about. Here’s some of what he was kind enough to send me:

My friend Adam Robinson was curating a performance art festival, the Transmodern in Baltimore and asked if I wanted to participate. We joked about what a writer could do as performance, and I suggested writing people’s life stories for them while they wait. It is, after all, the thing that many strangers say (and more think) when meeting a writer, that the writer should write their life story. The idea was absurd but also fascinating and seemed oddly possible if constrained to a postcard. Adam insisted that I give it a try, and that’s how the Postcard Life Stories project started.

I thought that it would be fun and funny, that I would ask a few questions and write on the backs of a few postcards and that would be it. The first story I wrote was for artist Bart O’Reilly. When I finished the postcard and looked up, a line had formed. For the rest of the night, I interviewed people and wrote their stories for them as fast as I could. It was a true performance. Those first few dozen postcard life stories were pretty brief. I interviewed people for 5-10 minutes and then wrote as they waited. It was intense and intimate. I remember being struck by how earnest and forthcoming most people were, how eager they were to share their life stories, how grateful they were for their postcard. Here’s the one I wrote for “C” (#5):

C was born in 1976 in California. At 4, she moved to Utah with her family, which led to some problems. At 12, she realized music would be her life’s calling. At 14, she realized there were problems with being a Mormon. At 17, this led her to stop walking, leaving the Mormon Church, and then begin walking again. This kind of movement took her away from her family in Utah to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Then she kept going—Seattle, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Los Angeles again, and Baltimore. She likes Baltimore and has finally moved far enough away from home to stop moving. C will eventually find somebody to play great music with and to tell that she secretly loves romantic comedies.

A few days later, “C” sent me a note that said, in part: “You took a dark and difficult time in my life and made it manageable for me. It was a kind of postcard therapy.” That note—and the feeling that I was somehow meant to do this thing—was a primary reason that the Postcard Life Story Project continued after that first night.

Eventually, I set up a blog, posted a few of the life stories and invited people to get in touch with me if they wanted their story written. I started doing interviews over the telephone and by email. I used a special micro-tipped pen that let me write smaller so that I could fit more words onto each postcard. I asked more questions, and the text got longer and included a lot more detail. It was after I wrote Adam’s story (#45), one of the first that I wrote at home, in private, giving myself as much time and as many words as needed, that the project began to take the form it has today.

Michael also included material on where the project went from there, which I share here:

I never expected that strangers would tell me so much about themselves, so many things that they have never told anybody else. But I found an unexpected intimacy in the Postcard Life Story Project. It taps into something human and humane, and I continue to be amazed by what people tell me. I write one for anybody who wants one. I don’t want anybody to feel as though their life story isn’t interesting enough. In fact, I’ve found that everybody’s life story is interesting if you ask the right questions.

I have learned that there are life stories everywhere. Most of the postcards have been for people from the United States, but I have also written these stories for people from the UK, Canada, South Africa, Portugal, Russia, Finland, Uganda, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Greece, China and Italy. And one for a man who claims to be an alien. I have written postcards for two sets of married people and for two sets of people who married after I wrote their postcards. And two participants whose stories appeared in close proximity on the blog dated each other for a short time, but it didn’t work out. I’ve written postcard life stories for two babies and for four people who claimed to be miracle babies. Besides people, I have written postcard life stories for four cats, two dogs, a rooster, an apple, a bar of soap, a T-shirt, a chair, an umbrella cover, a fictional character, a pseudonym and a literary magazine.

Jenny-Anne Dexter's story (#214)

Jenny-Anne Dexter's story (#214)

The longest interview was over 10,000 words, and that material was condensed to 531 words for the postcard life story (#195 Kaya Larsen). Six hundred and sixty-seven words were the most I ever fit onto a postcard (#210 Erik Larson). Erik was only 28 years old when I wrote his postcard life story, but he had already lived so much life. And one of the postcards, #240 Monte Riek, is what I call a “double,” 1362 words. It was condensed from 20 single-spaced pages—the life story that he wrote for himself as he came to terms with his lifelong addiction to drugs and alcohol.

So far, I have condensed 9821 years of life into 301 postcards. The youngest participant is one-year-old Kaya Larsen (#195); the oldest is 65-year-old Effie Gross (#221). Author Blake Butler (#66) said, “The scope of the thing is just kind of flabbergasting: Kimball as a filter for all these people’s years. I can’t imagine anyone else capable of such an undertaking.”

Given that Steven King, among others, has characterized the contemporary short story as “airless” and “self-referring,” not only written but also read primarily by lit majors and lit mag submitters, and that editors such as the infamous Ted Genoways have anticipated the death of fiction if young writers don’t “swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers,” we would do well to return to the roots of storytelling, as Michael has done. A story, Salman Rushdie reminds us in a New York Times video, is a great thing, and its greatness far exceeds professional writing. Storytelling is something we all do all the time with each other. It’s our way of understanding ourselves and others. As Michael has shown, it doesn’t require all that many words. After all, Ernest Hemingway famously managed to do it in six: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

As for myself, Michael’s postcards have motivated me–despite what others will say–to continue cramming three generations worth of events into 5777 words, as I did in “Making Soup,” or a mere 3000, as I did in “Winter Wonderland,” depending on the style that I elect to use. And to tell those stories from whatever perspective works best, be it that a one-month old infant, as I did in my soup story–over much objection; a sperm, as Jeffrey Eugenides did in Middlesex; or even a bar of soap, as Michael did on a postcard.

Michael Kimball has authored four books, including Dear Everybody and Us, which have been translated into a dozen languages, including Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean and Greek. His new novel, Big Ray, will be out this September, and the postcard stories will be available in book form sometime in the spring of 2013. Other work has appeared in The GuardianBomb and New York Tyrant and been broadcast on All Things Considered. He is also responsible for several documentaries, the 510 Reading Series and the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine

If you’d like to try something that could start you off in an unanticipated direction the way that Michael did, check out the various 2012 Transmodern Performance Festival calls for proposals. Or attend the event, which will be held May 17-20.


On Being Invisible: Welfare Recipients

This essay is one of a series inspired by the Little Patuxent Review Winter 2012 Social Justice issue. The first was posted September 2011, and all feature individuals who have helped make marginalized segments of our world visible to mainstream America through poetry, prose and visual art.

Barbara Morrison's memoirThis September, the Census Bureau released a report indicating that a record 46.2 million, or one in seven Americans, lived in poverty last year. August 2010, USA TODAY reported survey results showing that government anti-poverty programs that have grown to meet the needs of recession victims serve a record one in six Americans and continue to expand.

Though these statistics should be a warning that the odds of any of us needing access to some form of welfare have increased, most of us living in the 7th or so richest nation in the world have little idea what this entails. And available data sets are unlikely to capture the essence of the experience. That might require a poet.

Fortunately, we have one in Barbara Morrison, whose memoir Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother was published this July. While Morrison addresses a period prior to the 1996 welfare reform act, her portrayal of people on public assistance is pertinent today. Here, then, is Morrison, in her own words:

When my marriage dissolved, I found myself with a one-year-old baby, another on the way and no job, health insurance or child support. Despite having a college degree, I could not find work with a salary sufficient to cover food, rent and childcare costs. Welfare was the only way for my family to survive. As my friend Jill asked, “How bad do your choices have to be before welfare seems like your best choice?”

My story is not unusual.

A friend told me that while recommending my book to her friends, one of the women said, “That’s my story.” A widow with three children–the youngest only three months old–she had a Masters degree in counseling and still couldn’t get a job that would pay enough to support them. The economics are simply against single women with pre-school children requiring child care.

Quite a few of my business colleagues, upon hearing about my book, have told me that either they or their parents had also been on public assistance. Why hadn’t any of us mentioned our backgrounds before? Because there’s a stigma associated with welfare, which keeps people who need assistance from applying for it.

In a new afterword to the seminal Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich tells of returning ten years later to see whether things had changed for those in the bottom third of the income distribution. “The most shocking thing I learned from my research on the fate of the working poor in the recession was the extent to which poverty has indeed been criminalized in America.”

In a recent discussion, two participants told me that people “choose to be poor.” When I was on welfare, no one I knew had elected to be poor. A few had given in to the hopelessness that I also fell prey to after so many of my efforts proved futile. But most were like Margie:

A Hispanic woman I visited, Margie, had newborn twins and two daughters, one of whom was going to Head Start. Margie’s twin 16-year-old brothers also lived with her. We sat around the kitchen table talking for a long time. She was interested in my classes, but all her spare time was dedicated to getting a job so she could get off of welfare. I didn’t say anything. We all wanted to get off of welfare, but I didn’t see how Margie could hold down a job with six kids in the house, two of them newborns at that.

David K. Shipler, in the extraordinary book The Working Poor: Invisible in America, correctly identifies the combination of factors needed to combat poverty. In order to work, people need more than food and housing. They need reliable transportation and child care. They need training and workplace contacts. They need to learn how to write a resume and handle a job interview. I needed all those things and was lucky enough to receive them.

Let us ignore the stigma and tell our stories. Let us set the truth against the misconceptions and stereotypes so that we can begin to approach real solutions.

Women who have previously told their stories include Richeline Mitchell, who wrote Dear Self: A Year in the Life of a Welfare Mother; Mary Childers, who wrote Welfare Brat: A Memoir; and those in Jason DeParle’s American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare.

Barbara Morrison is the author of the poetry collection Here at Least as well as the memoir Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. Her work has been published in The Sun, Scribble and Tiny Lights. She has won Society of Southwestern Authors and National League of American Pen Women awards.