Monday, August 25, 2008

Book Review: Not Quite What I Had Planned

"The universe is full of irony."

Today marked the end of my comprehensive exam, which is basically five-day research and writing marathon. After I turned in the resulting 39-page paper this afternoon, I found that a book I ordered had arrived while I was out. The book was Not Quite What I Had Planned: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. Based on the submissions to Smith Magazine by various people, the title accurately describes the book's contents. Smith's challenge to people is to condense their lives into six words. Initially, this seems like a simple task. Some might think "Anyone can think of six words to say to describe himself. What's the challenge in that?" However, accurately and cohesively distilling a life and personality into six words is considerably more challenging that many people expect.

One of the great misconceptions I run into with students is that a longer paper is harder to write and thus is better than a shorter paper. They often have a hard time understanding that more does not always signify better. Perhaps part of that is because of our society. We are a culture that champions that bigger is better and more is always preferred to enough. Consequently, the beauty and power of a six word memoir may be hard for some to see. Not Quite What I Had Planned (which I wish I had thought of - it is an awesome six word description of my life) serves as a testament to the beauty and power that can be found in six words.

The memoirs range from the humorous ("Right place, right time, good lawyer") to the bittersweet ("It's like forever, only much shorter"). Regardless of the tone, almost every six-word memoir gives some idea of what the person who wrote it is like. While it may not provide an exact description, it is possible to look at each of these mini-memoirs and understand, on some level, what has happened to the person in question or what his (or her) philosophy on life might be. Like the PostSecret website, these six-word memoirs give readers the sense that they are not alone and that someone else feels the way they feel. Besides the title, I was particularly drawn to "In a Manolo world, I'm Keds" and Stephen Colbert's submission, "Well, I thought it was funny."

Like the memoirs it contains, Not Quite What I was Planning is a book that has the ability to take on many guises. While I read the entire contents of the book in ninety minutes, I do not delude myself by thinking that I have even started to scratch the surface of what many of these memoirs actually mean. This is a book that invites rereading and reevaluation so that readers can continually try and make greater meaning from each contributor's six words. I, for one, am looking forward to that opportunity and to the challenge of writing my own perfect six-word memoir. Here is my second attempt*: "So tired. Work left to do."

*My first attempt is at the beginning of this post.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm...what would mine be?

"I am not insane...just unique."

Yeah, I believe that covers it.