While I was researching Monday’s post – I came across another idea I loved. In his fascinating NPR series “Live from the New York Public Library”, Paul Holdengräber asks his (mostly) prominent guests to provide an autobiography that he reads during his introduction to their interview. Brevity is still key: Holdengräber gives them seven words. But the responses provide a natural framework and great jumping off point for the interview. Not that Paul needs it, he is as smart as hell and does his research. Traits that are reflected in his choice of seven word autobiography: “Mother always said: Two ears, one mouth.
Simple and brilliant – I wanted a succinct line like that. Something that said it all, that answered the question: “who the hell do you think you are?” I picked out a few descriptions that resonated – I needed to examine them closely, to see how their minds had worked – which probably reveals a fair amount about me already. Holdengräber’s guest list was pretty eclectic:
The Existentialist: Jim Holt was satisfied – “Failed mathematician who happily declined into journalism.”
The Psychologist: Daniel Kahneman chose his profession well – “Endlessly amused by people’s minds”.
The Architect: Rem Koolhaas (stayed true to form) – “Mystic rational sober baroque patient immediate.”
The Artist: Ed Ruscha – who certainly does paint signs, broke the word barrier and came up with a list –
“Lapsed catholic Newspaper carrier Hitchhiker Sign painter Printer’s devil Daydreamer”
The Sculptor: Anish Kapoor brought poetry – “As if to celebrate I discovered a mountain.”
The Ceramicist: Edmund de Waal was droll – “Actually, I still make pots you know.”
The Musicians came from two very different places: Rufus Wainwright tossed out humility with charming irreverence – “According to Elton John world’s greatest singer-songwriter” and Brian Eno – ever the sage, kept it real and simple – “I like making and thinking about culture.”
The Writers were practiced:
Malcolm Gladwell, ever contrary – “Father said: Anything but journalism. I rebelled.”
John Irving used his semicolon strategically – “Imagined missing father; wrestled, wrote, fathered children.”
Elizabeth Gilbert riffed off the title of her modern classic: “Eats/Loves too much…should Pray more”
and Don DeLillo, as ever – was succinct and precise with format –
why he is here.”
All good stuff. But the one that whistled at me – demanding my attention was the inimitable Joan Didion, who has a rare gift for both wry self-awareness and unwavering self-respect. Joan said “Seven words do not yet define me.”
Amen to that. But now I had to try – she had. I must.
So I tasked the infinitely patient camparigirl to come up with hers: which she nailed: “morning person and always looking forward”. And set to wrangling mine into shape. Tougher than it seems at first blush for this opinionated chick – because I struggle with overtly revealing too much about myself. The darker stuff surfaced first, but I got over it quickly
I’m with Joan: there is a lot more to be writ, but this is about right now. This is about being in this moment. Something I am actively working on. So Paul, for today, here’s me: “optimistic realist, some fear, solo traveller, aunt”. And I am delighted to have met you.
(See the full conversations on the LIVE from the NYPL Vimeo channel. All photos in the public domain.)