PEOPLE get excited about the weirdest new developments. One man’s Halo 3 is another man’s latte aerator. Tyra Banks’ thigh re-paver is Queen Elizabeth’s corgi brain enlarger.
There will be a lot of people getting excited about obscure gadgets and other novel treats this coming week, as they discover exactly what they wanted under their Christmas trees.
These people will not include my husband, Stanley. Regrettably, he likes nothing better than the latest gadget. Stanley can’t just have an iPod that actually works. He has to have the super-sized iPod with the extraterrestrial mind probe, the Global Positioning System, and Smell-o-Vision. In addition, he has to have it now. (We once owned a car with a feature that told you if you were on a hill. I think that device was called the “D-uh.”)
I, on the other hand, hate gadgets and cannot operate one, however simple. Even a potato peeler can flummox me; I stand on my head so the blade will be pointed the right way.
So I won’t buy any more battery-operated knick-knacks for Stanley, because, for me, even the act of purchasing them is too confusing. The zealous salesperson will always ask me a pointed question about the device, like “Does your husband want that with zip or sorsk?” I have no idea how to respond, so at that point I usually fall over and pretend to have broken an arm. Then I have an excuse to gallop out of the store with humiliated tears in my eyes. And once again, Stanley gets socks.
But enough about him. Let’s talk about my key peccadillo (it’s my column, not his!), which is that I get my kicks from the very idea of a quirky book, especially one full of bon mots. Naturally, I’m not referring to Conrad Black’s biography of Richard Nixon -- (yawn) I wonder why that one didn’t make all the bestseller lists. I mean a book like the one that will come out next month, called Not Quite What I Was Planning (HarperCollins), co-edited by Smith magazine’s Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser.
Not Quite What I Was Planning is a compendium of mini-autobiographies that were sent to the editors after they launched a contest asking people to sum up their lives in six words. Among those who responded were the always- hilarious Stephen Colbert, author and journalist Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm), and author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love). Among these more public characters, drag queen and author Josh Kilmer-Purcell wittily wrote of himself, “He wore dresses. This caused messes.”
But the editors were equally intrigued by regular people like a 16-year-old from Nashville, Texas called Lizzie Grace, who penned the poignant, “Wanted world, got world plus lupus.”
At the same time, the sheepish J. Bettencourt confessed, “One tooth, one cavity, life’s cruel.” We get an equally grisly mental picture from J. Baumeister’s succinct, “Bad brakes discovered at high speed.” A perhaps too self-assured Stephen J. Dubner contributed, “On the seventh word, he rested.”
Abigail Moorhouse’s “Barrister, barista, what’s the diff, Mom?” needed no further explanation, which may be why it won the contest over more than 5,000 other entries.
The project was supposedly inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s oft-praised teensy story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The book’s unexpectedly telling summaries function as deeply personal haikus. “I still make coffee for two,” reads one. “Found true love, married someone else” reads another.
This kind of fiction is known as “flash,” “micro,” “sudden,” “short-short,” “postcard,” “minute,” “quick,” “furious,” and “skinny.” Those terms characterize a story that is under 2,000 words long and more likely ranges between 250 and 1,000 words.
Maybe the genre appeals most to readers and writers with short attention spans; in this modern, instant-gratification society of ours, that would certainly make sense. But maybe it’s just for people who believe you can say more with a handful of perfectly sculpted phrases than you can with a monolithic Henry Moore of a manuscript -- or you can say almost as much, and that’s plenty.
Last year, Wired magazine asked writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror to tackle the challenge of the six-word epic. It got some great entries. Presumably, these submissions weren’t autobiographical -- at least, I hope not, in the case of Joss Whedon’s “Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.”
Being inventive in the face of brevity was crucial for Wired’s enterpise. See: Alan Moore’s “Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time.” It’s hard not to admire Rockne S. O’Bannon’s “It’s behind you! Hurry before it” or James Patrick Kelly’s “We kissed. She melted. Mop please!”
At the same time, Kevin Smith’s “Kirby had never eaten toes before” is unexpectedly compelling to the average omnivore. Personally, I can’t help but sympathize with Ken MacLeod’s “Will this do (lazy writer asked)?”
As a result of reading about Not Quite What I was Planning in the National Post and online, I’ve discovered that there are e-zines specializing in short fiction. They include Smokelong Quarterly (www.smokelong.com), Flashquake (www.flashquake.org), and Vestal Review (www.vestalreview.net). It’s amazing how delicious these bytes of fiction can be, although they sometimes serve to tantalize rather than satisfy.
I think flash fiction ought to be a parlour game, like charades. Over the holidays, when you can think of no more questions to ask about your guests’ new devices and their zips and sorsks, why not invite them to come up with six words of autobiography? Or, if you fear that might devolve into a pity party (Oprah fans, this game is not for you), request the same allotment of words describing their family history.
“Kilt-averse. Haggis be damned. Onward!” would likely work for your Scottish-Canadian uncle, or at least would get him started. “Cabbage diet propelled us west, literally,” might suffice for your Eastern European kin. “Snow up to here. Why not?” sounds ideal for those whose ancestors hailed from Minsk.
There are all kinds of applications of this game, from a group of divorcees meeting to joke about the perfect six-word ad to attract or characterize a new mate, to a bunch of potential employees being asked by a boss to describe themselves in one concise epithet.
After all, to zero in on something in six words is no mean feat. Words are precious. They ought to be used thoughtfully.
Of course, that’s just the view of a “Word nerd. No money, deservedly so.”