The beginning of Michael Kimball's life story goes like this:
"Writer Michael Kimball was born two weeks late, during the Great Midwest Blizzard of 1967. His father was huge, weighing as much as 450 pounds, and could be very scary — he had fast hands and nobody ever knew when he would go into a rage. But Michael's mother was incredibly giving, often doing without so that her three children could have clothes for school, shoes for the basketball team."
It goes on from there — from high school to college and through his writing career so far — but it doesn't take up too much space: It's all written on a 4-by-6-inch postcard.
Kimball has started an entire project to capture people's biographies in short form, Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard). He can fit up to 600 words on a card.
Writer Michael Kimball started writing peoples' lives on postcards 15 months ago. He says the exercise has given him more empathy: "I'm even more interested in people than I used to be," Kimball says.
Writer Michael Kimball started writing peoples' lives on postcards 15 months ago. He says the exercise has given him more empathy: "I'm even more interested in people than I used to be," Kimball says. Rachel Bradley
Kimball, who lives in Baltimore, got to work on his project in April 2008 by accident, he says. A friend of his was curating a performance arts festival, Kimball tells NPR's Madeleine Brand, and the friend asked Kimball — as a joke — why he wasn't participating.
"I answered that I was a writer ... writers don't do performance art," Kimball says. "And then we started joking about what a writer might do as performance art. That the writer should be able to write a life story. And then we took it to an absurd point with the idea of taking everyone's life and putting it on a postcard."
Kimball, who wrote for four hours that night in what he calls a "thrilling experience," now offers the postcards for free through his blog. He says he thinks people tell him intimate details of their lives because they're not generally asked about them.
"I think it's something that just doesn't happen so much in our culture anymore," he says. "There are a lot of people who are putting themselves out there in different ways — everything from status updates to tweets to whatever is on their MySpace page or their own blog, but we don't have people asking questions."
Kimball says there are two ways to group people who come to the blog to have their life story written: Those who have an ego and want "how good and what they've done sort of given back to them" and those who have had interesting or difficult experiences and want to "reclaim" their lives.
Those are the people who interest him most, he says. But those can also be the most challenging.
Kimball aims to honor the difficulties of people's lives — and also present them in an even-handed way. He does not want to make them too sentimental — or too sensational. And the challenge has also changed him as a person.
"However much empathy I had before I started this, I have more now," Kimball says.