Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Life Story Project

My friend Adam Robinson was curating an art festival, the Transmodern in Baltimore, and he asked me if I wanted to participate. I asked him what he thought a writer could do at an art festival and we made some jokes about that. But then I told Adam that I could write people’s life stories for them and he got this look on his face like he does when there's a good idea near him. Then I remembered this bunch of postcards that I had just gotten in the mail. That's how the project started: Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard).

I thought it would be fun and funny and that I would write on the backs of a few postcards and that would be it. The first postcard I wrote was for Bart O’Reilly, a painter, who quit art school in Dublin to work as an ice cream man in Ocean City, which is how he met the woman who became his wife. When I finished the postcard and looked up, a line had formed. For the rest of the night, I interviewed dozens of people and wrote each person’s life story on the back of the postcard. I did this for four hours straight without getting up out of the chair that I was sitting in. I was completely exhausted by the end. My mind was racing with the details of people’s lives and the hope that I had done their various stories justice in the space of a postcard. I was astounded by what people told me, the secrets and the difficulties, the pain and wonder and hope that they revealed. People told me about being in jail, about not being able to have children (and only wanting children because of the infertility), about having too many boyfriends, about computer hacking, about keeping it a secret that they like doing homework, about meeting their future wife while working abroad selling ice cream at a seaside boardwalk, about moving to a city because they liked a particular diner, about leaving their birth country when they were 5 years old and continuing to try to escape wherever they lived, about saying their favorite color is green even though it isn’t, and about feeling responsible for their adopted brother being institutionalized.

Since then, I spent two days writing life stories at the Honfest in Baltimore and have continued to interview people over the telephone and through email. The one thing that I have learned so far: Everybody is amazing.

Here's one of my favorites:

#59 We're Lucky There's Blake Butler
Blake Butler’s two older brothers were miscarriages. Blake was almost a miscarriage too. He was blue and not breathing. He scored 1 out of 10 on the Apgar scale, which is almost not alive, and lived under the lights in the ICU for days. When he went home, he was his mother’s miracle. Understandably, she was overprotective with Blake when he was an infant, but that turned into permissiveness as he grew older, which gave him a sense of freedom that continues to inform his writing today. By 4 years old, Blake was performing considered monologues, crazy dances, music videos, and both sides of talk shows. It’s all on video (his mother will show you, if you want). Despite these performances, Blake was a fat child by the 4th grade. He liked comic books and video games. By 10th grade, he weighed 250 pounds and felt disregarded. His bedroom walls were covered with pictures of women that he tore out of magazines at the grocery store. He started playing bass in a band and started to feel better. By 11th grade, he weighed 170 pounds and people were nicer to him. He lost all the weight for a girl named Jen. He thought his weight was the only thing keeping her from him. It wasn’t, but Blake stopped being shy and started talking to girls. He played in lots of different rock bands—15, eventually. The first time Blake was on stage, under the lights, it reminded him of when he was in the ICU. Eventually, writing replaced music, though Blake brought the rhythm of the bass with him to the page. Blake still thinks of himself as the fat kid and he writes to find out what is inside him. This is one explanation for his tremendous written output. Another explanation is his insomnia, which allows him more conscious hours than most people are allowed. Blake is never fully awake or fully asleep, though, and the normal often becomes strange. But Blake keeps giving us everything that is inside him. It’s not pounds, but it’s a different kind of weight.

There are dozens more at Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard).

1 comment:

  1. A truly fascinating project, beautifully written & conceived. I look forward to reading more of them.


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