“So what is your story, then?” – a question posed over coffee last week by J, a brand new acquaintance. I’d been listening to him detail his life for a while and he obviously felt he needed trade-back to indicate my buy-in. J was referred to me by an old work colleague; because he is considering a move to Cape Town from New York. My pal thought that a native with similar life experience would provide the appropriate insights.
Which I would have offered had I cared enough. But the telling had revealed this fella was dragging a big old dead horse around with him and hoped the dollar/rand exchange rate would reinvent him as a polo player. He would get ridden hard and put away wet in CT, no question there. But I doubt that’s what he had in mind. Regardless, I have weaned myself off trying to solve, rescue or present the truth to people. It’s exhausting and pointless and I just can’t be assed any more.
On the way home I did have a think about his question: what is my story? When I was a facilitator for the Poker Room – we would teach people to create an Elevator Speech. The idea being that you present yourself to a potential sales lead in the time it takes for the elevator doors to close on one floor and open on another. The formula is simple: who I am + what I do + what I can do for you + why. I tried out a couple but they didn’t work: the hard sell made it less story, more transaction. And I wondered: was there a biographical formula?
Online magazine Smith thought so. In the interests of simplicity, they asked readers to compose a biography of their own lives in a single sentence. Ernest Hemingway once proved that an entire story could be told using under a dozen words: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn”. So the idea wasn’t new, but the word limit ensured brevity.
Smith’s readers rose to the challenge – and the results are often funny, sometimes sad, insightful and always concise. There’s …humour and self-deprecation:
Woman Seeks Men – High Pain Threshold.
My first concert: Zappa. Explains everything.
Aging late bloomer yearns for do-over.
…the inevitable bitter or bittersweet ruminations on love lost
Girlfriend is pregnant, my husband said.
Just in: boyfriend’s gay. Merry Christmas.
Let’s just be friends, she said.
…bemusement at the turn of events
Gave commencement address, became sex columnist.
Mormon economist marries feminist. Worlds collide.
Still lost on road less traveled.
…a few philosophers distilling life experience into personal truth
Palindromic novels fall apart halfway through.
Cheese is the essence of life.
Wandering imagination opens doors to paradise.
and, sweetly – some simple contentment:
Alone at home, cat on lap.
Wasn’t born a redhead; fixed that.
Now I had a template.
I asked camparigirl to play and, always game, she offered: “ every so often I reinvent myself”. Spot on and I would have recognised her in that. I battled because I hate too much of a self-reveal, but settled with: “I’ve learned when to shut up”. Says it all without saying too much. Which was the point.
Back to my coffee date: my companion was still looking at me expectantly, so I smiled and offered: “well, I’ve learned that wherever you go, you take yourself with you. So be sure you like your travel companion.”
He was out of there so fast he didn’t even spring for coffee.
The result of the Smith project is a book: Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. If I was to review it in six words, I would say: “All of life is right here.”
(All images in the public domain. This post was not sponsored in any way.)