“I never expected strangers to tell me so much about themselves, so many things they have never told anybody else, but I found an unexpected intimacy in the postcard life story project,” writes Michael Kimball in the introduction to his new book, the aptly titled Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard). Kimball continues: “It tapped into something human and humane. I was continually amazed by what people told me.”
Kimball’s respect for the people whose stories he is telling comes through in his spare but descriptive prose, an economical rhetoric undoubtedly necessitated by the confines of his small canvasses. When I interviewed Kimball about the project, he told me:
There are difficult things at different stages of the process. The first difficult thing is asking the right questions for the particular participant. The second difficult thing is being representative when condensing what I’ve been told. The third difficult thing is writing small enough to squeeze six hundred words or so onto a single postcard.
Through that asking, condensing, and squeezing, Kimball distills his subject’s lives into compact but moving stories.
Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) began as a performance piece at the Transmodern Performance Festival and then continued as a blog. Kimball eventually wrote over three hundred postcards; over fifty of these are collected in the new book. A not-insubstantial number of these are devoted to the biographies of contemporary writers, including folks like Tao Lin, Matt Bell, and Blake Butler:
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 and took home.
There’s also a first-person POV bio of Edgar Allan Poe, the last few paragraphs of which I can’t help sharing:
In 1831, my foster father and I had a terrible disagreement, after which I was court-martialed and kicked out of West Point. In 1834, my foster father died and did not leave me any of his money. To console myself, I married my 14-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm.
For years, I published poems and stories and criticism, but it did not make me happy or money. In 1837, I was fired from a newspaper job for drinking. After that, I published a novel, but that didn’t help much either. Readers are sick. That’s why Virginia got tuberculosis and died in 1847. I was so lonely and so cold. I could not stop drinking.
It was 1849 when I stopped in Baltimore. I remember going down in the street, and, later, two hazy men taking me someplace white. I don’t remember dying, but I was glad I didn’t have to keep trying.
The mix of empathy and humor we see here resonates throughout the collection, whether Kimball is telling the life story of a U.S. President, or an ex-crack addict who met his wife at an all-you-can-eat buffet, or a rooster. Kimball handles his subjects with an intense honesty appropriate to the often tragic trajectory these tales take—even a piece like “Red Delicious Apple,” which takes metaphysical license of a sort, leads to a sad end:
The first thing Red Delicious Apple remembered was being a flower and the way the birds sounded in the trees. Later, Apple remembered the wind and losing his petals. Apple wanted to jump down after them, but stayed on the branch, in the tree. … Not long after that, Hand delivered Apple to the teeth. Apple could feel the teeth cutting through his skin and into his meat, what was left of his insides turning brown. Afterward, he sickened, softened. The last thing Apple remembered was the trashcan, the lid, the rotting darkness.
Or the fate of “Chair”:Chair thought, Wood and glue.
Chair thought, Next time, I’m letting go.
Chair cracked. He broke one of his legs and then his back.
Chair thought, That didn’t even hurt.
Update : Chair was thrown into a dumpster.
But perhaps I bring up “Chair” and “Red Delicious Apple” because their tragic contours are easier to allude to quickly than many of the biographies here, which often involve missing parents, mental illness, and suicidal thoughts, all delivered in the spare, striking prose that the confines of Kimball’s project necessitate. The stories are sometimes shocking and sometimes sad and usually very moving. As the titular anonym of “G” suggests, “tragedy can be beautiful.”
Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) is new from Mud Luscious Press.