One item in my stocking this year was Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous and Obscure Writers. Literary myth holds that Ernest Hemingway – often acknowledged as the king of minimalist style – was challenged to write a six-word story, and he produced: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Six-word stories are a now a haiku's haiku, an exercise in conciseness so easy and yet so challenging that it has drawn attention from accomplished writers and neophytes alike. I've known about the form for a while. A couple years ago Wired Magazine ran a fun six-word story collection with a star-studded list of contributors, especially sci-fi greats like David Brin ("Metrosexuals notwithstanding, quiche still lacks something."), Orson Scot Card ("The baby's blood type? Human, mostly."), Joss Whedon ("Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.") and Steve Meretsky ("He read his obituary with confusion.")
This book of memoirs also had a number of recognizable names in it, though most would only be known to a fraction of the readers. I'm glad the editors decided not to annotate any of the contributions, and let readers discover for themselves the connections between the memoirs and their subjects. I was surprised and gratified to notice Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist of whom I'm a fan. His entry was simple and descriptive: "Struggled with how the mind works." After reading the entire book, I thought it was a credit to his life and his writing that he could sum up his work so well. You have to have a singular purpose, or at least a singular direction or style, for six words to be sufficient.
The best contributions (IMHO) were from the top-drawer professional wordsmiths. Stephen Colbert, political satirist, nailed both his content and his style: "Well, I thought it was funny." So did Roy Blount, Jr., a Southern story-teller and humorist: "Maybe you had to be there." Honorable mention for cleverness goes to Jimmy Wales, creator of the Wikipedia: "Yes, you can edit this biography."
The rest of the entries were interesting, but usually not for their individual merit. I was curious about the patterns I saw; there are only so many approaches one can take to the task, and I was intrigued by the repetition of certain themes. Probably the most common theme was regret, with lots of contributions chronicling the dark side of life:
"Fell in love. Married. Divorced. Repeat."
"Crappy parents killed my self-esteem."
"Thought I would have more impact."
The complaints and regrets were only slightly outnumbered by pithy, shallow expressions of joy. For instance, from the king of pithy and shallow, Deepak Chopra: "Danced in fields of infinite possibility." Or this: "Wandering imagination opens doors to paradise." You get the idea. After reading four or five of them, with no detail to sustain them, and no truth to back them up, they all run together in a boring blur.
Slightly more interesting were the contributions that zoomed in on life-changing events. For instance:
"After eighteen years, sold my book."
"Running away: best decision I made."
"I auditioned. I got the part."
I think I liked those the best. They were distinctive and personal and spoke to what mattered most for these people. I occasionally qvelled at simple, honest, unpretentious summations of family happiness. For instance: "Found true love after nine months." There were a lot of those, too, but their honesty made up for their repetition.
Of course, you can't read such things without trying to compose your own. It would be a great exercise for a Self Knowledge Symposium meeting. I jokingly proposed one for my wife, who is pregnant with our third child, and anxious about it: "Three may have been too many." For myself . . . I haven't come up with anything I'm happy with. The simplest might be, "Sought enlightenment. Made software. Now writing." That doesn't have much punch, which doesn't bode well for me.
In terms of summarizing my life, it's pretty easy:
"Teaching, spiritual work...but family first."
In terms of a clever little science fiction story, how about this?
"Last newspaper headline only about itself"
A couple of other random comments. My favorite Hemingway story, "Hills Like White Elephants," reflects much the same concern as his six-word story. Also, when I sat down years ago to read a Deepak Chopra story, I had never heard anyone say anything bad about him, and I was honestly shocked to discover what trivial blather the whole book was. It was a bit of a relief to discover, later, others saying the same thing. (Chris Evans, after hearing him speak at TED, coined the word "Deepakababble.")
Was Ursula LeGuin in the book? I love her use of words. How about Woody Allen? Come to think of it, songwriters should be great at this: did they ask Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Al Stewart? (My three favorite lyricists.)
Stephen Colbert once interviewed Steven Pinker, soon after the publication of "How the Mind Works." His first question: "I know it's a terribly complicated, technical subject, but please tell us, how does the mind work? Five words or less."
Clearly caught off-guard, Pinker answered with remarkable aplomb, counting off the words on his fingers as he spoke:
Unfortunately, none of the artists you mentioned were represented in this book. The biggest celebrities that I recognized, other than the ones I already mentioned, were:
-- Mario Batali (TV chef)
-- Joan Rivers (comedienne)
-- Aimee Mann (singer/songwriter)
-- Nora Ephron (director/screenwriter)
-- George Saunders (writer)
-- Joyce Carol Oates (author)
There are probably other minor celebrities in the book who slipped through my media-challenged knowledge. For all I know, the creator of SpongeBob is in there.
The other celebrity entries were all pretty good, but not so good that I felt compelled to include them in my post. Aimee Mann's had the virtues of simplicity, honesty, and focus -- "Couldn't cope so I wrote songs."
When I suggested my six-word science fiction story, I had a whole backstory in mind that I thought the six words conveyed nicely. Joyce pointed out that it hinged on the correct interpretation of "last"--I intended it to mean "final," not "previous." I don't like changing it to "final" so I think I'm gonna go with:
"World's last newspaper only about itself"
I'm picturing a totalitarian censorship regime that blah, blah...but hey, if it isn't there in the six words, then it doesn't work at all.