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What 22,613 People Taught Me About Life
Let me tell you a story. Back in 1983, when I was twenty-four years old and working in Chicago as an editor at the American Bar Association, I wanted nothing more than to become a novelist. In the mornings I awoke at six o'clock to write my novel. In the evenings, I sometimes stood up, mid-conversation with friends, and announced that I'd just had an idea and had to go home to write.
Then one October morning on the bus ride to work, a coworker and I were trying to think up Halloween costumes. I hit on a ridiculous idea: "How about if I went as a writer, with a typewriter slung from my shoulders, and walked around the party like one of those old-fashioned cigarette girls, saying, 'Short stories? Poems? Novels?'"
My coworker, Mary, laughed and said, "You've got to do it,Dan!"
"Definitely!" I replied. And never did. Of course I never did. What was I, nuts?
But the idea haunted me all that winter and into spring. I began thinking it would be cool to do it on a street corner, as performance art (or performance writing). Something about the idea grabbed me: writing in public, on demand. Ridiculous, absurd, sillybut interesting. And behind the absurdity, I sensed the possibility of touching people more directly with my writing than I ever had while sitting alone at my desk. Heck, if nothing else, it would make a good story to tell my grandchildren.
One night when I lay in bed trying to sleep, battling the usual "maybe I should try it" thoughts, I climbed out of bed, sat at my desk, switched on the lamp, took a yellow legal pad and tried to see if my idea wasn't so crazy that I couldn't figure out a way to make it work. The first problem I saw was the weight of my typewriter. I picked up the big, gray, manual Royal from the 1950s and realized immediately that it was far too heavy to walk around with it hanging from my shoulders. Then I remembered the folding director's chair in the back of my kitchen closet: maybe I could just sit there on the sidewalk with the typewriter in my lap.
I went into the closet and pulled the chair out, dusted it off and sat down with the typewriter in my lap. It felt heavy, but rested squarely and securely on my knees. It worked.
What would I call it? Thinking of the bestselling book, The One-Minute Manager, I made a little sign to tape on my typewriter so people would see it as they walked by:
Written While You Wait
That Thursday night, I met with my monthly writers' group and tried it out on them, asking each a few questions, and then spontaneously typing a few sentences inspired by our conversation.
"So, what'd you think?" I asked, looking around the room like a dog waiting to be petted.
"Well, Dan," said my friend Bob, "it's kind of weird."
But I didn't mind; that was the whole point. I did fear getting arrested, laughed at or just ignored. I even pictured the frightening possibility of a man grabbing my typewriter and throwing it at me. But the fears were part of what made my experiment so interesting. I was heading into uncharted wilderness, and if a map of what lay ahead had been available, I wouldn't have bothered taking the trip.
So on Sunday, April 24, 1983, at about 2 P.M., I carried my twenty-eight-pound 1953 Royal typewriter atop the fabric seat of my folding director's chair through the stiff wind of Chicago's Michigan Avenue, and set up in front of the Old Water Tower. I had dressed in my three-piece gray flannel suite, blue-and-gold tie, white Oxford button-down shirt and black wingtipsthe outfit I normally wore to my job at the ABAto counteract people's automatic assumptions that a man sitting on the sidewalk with a typewriter in his lap had to be insane or begging for money. When I reached a spot where the sidewalk was widest, I opened up the folding chair, sat down with the typewriter in my lap and taped my "60-Second Novel" sign to the back of it so that it faced the passersby.
For the first minute, I felt totally ridiculous, as if I were sitting there naked. "Would you like a 60-Second Novel?" I forced myself to ask a middle-aged man walking by.
"Not today," he replied.
Instantly I blurted back, "How about tomorrow at five-thirty?"
He laughed but kept walking. Now another feeling stole over me: freedom, abandonment. I had no idea what I was doing, and I had never felt more alive.
Not knowing what else to do, I slipped a piece of paper (and carbon paper for making a copy) into the typewriter, and began typing the world's first 60-Second Novel, which I here reprint in its entirety, typos and all:
One day Dan Hurley got this crazy idea to
go out on Michigan Avenu3 to see what would
happen if he began typing on the street.
People walked by and laughed. He felt
sort of strange. Wouldn't you?
I didn't know what to do with it. "Excuse me, sir, would you like a 60-Second Novel?" I asked a young man walking by. He didn't reply. I asked a few more people, and they ignored me too. Finally I stood up, set the typewriter on the chair and walked over to a middle-aged woman in a business suit, who was waiting for a bus.
"Ma'am, would you like this story I just wrote?" I asked.
"All right," she said reluctantly, as if I were handing her a flyer for a strip joint.
I sat back down and shivered in the wind, inviting whoever passed to get a 60-Second Novel. The whole thing took on the aspect of a psychological experiment. I was a human Rorschach. No one knew what I was doing there, least of all me, and so everyone had to invent an explanation, assign me a meaning.
Some laughed cynically and said, "What a gimmick," as though I had thought the whole thing up as a money-making scheme. Others looked sympathetic and said, "A starving poet!" One elderly lady asked me if I were selling the typewriter. A couple walked by, and the woman asked her husband, "What's he doing?" The man answered, "He's trying to get a job." Sitting there watching people watch me, I could almost see their minds whirring and clicking as they tried to find a single pigeonhole where "writer" and "on the street" could fit together.
After getting either ignored, misunderstood or laughed at by everybody who walked by for half an hour, I watched an elderly couple walk toward me and then stop in their tracks, pointing and laughing. Another couple of boneheads, I figured. And then the woman spoke.
"I don't know what you're doing," she said, "but whatever it is, I want one!"
The man added, with a wry smile, "It certainly is something extremely unusual."
I looked them up and downtheir eyes glistened with excitement, they had huge grins, they looked totally enchanted so I just asked their names and began writing:
Something Extremely Unusual
It happened one cloudy afternoon. They had
been walking on Michigan Avenue, George and
Mitzy, when suddenly they became...ALIVE!
It couldn't have ever been expected. The
first thing Mitzy noticed was that she was
breathing, that her heart was beating,
that she was walking on Michigan Avenue.
She suddenly realized that xxx for all the
xx years that the world had been going on,
all the billions of eons, she had been
dead. And now, suddenly, for a spark of a
moment, she was alive.
George was devastated by the knowledge
that this was his life, his one and only
life, that he was living right now. He could
feel his skin sweating. He could hear the sound
of his breathing in his own ears. He
could actually SEE things. He could
could actually HEAR sounds. Yes, it was the most
unusual thing, to be alive. Because so
many people are dead. So many. They live
in the past. They dwell on tomorrow. They
think angry thoughts about other people.
They try to get somewhere. They lose
themselves. They forget the crucial fact
that they are alive. And when you forget
it, you are dead. And so to be suddenly
alive, that is the strangest, the most
unusual, the most bizarre thing in the
world. To really live. To really be alive.
To be fully alive. Living. Hooray life.
Hooray for living people.
They're so extremely unusual.
As I typed, I noticed shoes crowding toward me on the sidewalk. Whispers and chuckles came from behind my back. Someone jostled my elbow, and a toddler began pawing at the carriage return. When I finally pulled the page out of the typewriter, I looked up to see about twenty-five people surrounding me, blocking off the sidewalk so that others had to walk into the street to get around.
"Read it!" shouted a few of them.
I read it. When it was over, they applauded.
"Where do I put the money?" asked George.
"Money?" I repeated.
"Who's next?" asked a thirty-something guy in the crowd.
"Is there a line?"
In that momentI still remember the sight and sound of that crowd as though they were standing around me nowthe entire direction of my life veered off-road. It was my first experience of "eureka!" I had no idea what I had discoveredor what had discovered mebut I could see it worked. And so I wrote another. And another.
Rather than embarrassing me or scaring me into silence, the crowd spurred me into a creative frenzy. They were the ultimate deadline. Words leapt from my brain to my fingers with barely a pit stop in my awareness. Time shrunk down to a dustball. The world transformed into words.
Seven stories later, my fingers stiff from the cold, the crowd having ebbed away, I packed up to leave. The last thing I did before lugging my typewriter back to the car was to count my earnings for the hour: $14.75. Eureka indeed.
My life took on a Clark Kent-Superman split: mild-mannered reporter for the American Bar Association by day, 60-Second Novelist fighting a never-ending battle for literature and tips by night. At first, I charged like a museum: Pay what you wish but you must pay something. Most people gave me a dollar or two, sometimes five dollars or ten dollars. One guy gave me twenty-five dollars and a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream. Another gave me ten dollars and a condom (unused). When I decided to fix the price at two dollars, suddenly more people wanted them. They were valuable now because they cost money.
That first summer, I feared I was turning into a Stupid Human Trick: "Dan Hurley, the human story machine: Put in a word, he spits out a story!" I also feared that I'd soon get bored. (Sixteen years and 22,613 novels later, I'm still waiting.) But it seemed that no matter what I wrote, people laughed, or sometimes cried, and thanked me till my ears were ready to fall off. Many told me they were framing their stories. I received cards and letters from across the United States. At least one woman a night kissed me and more than a few gave me their phone numbers.
The longer I kept at it, the more people opened up to me, pouring out their life stories and their problems, taking me more seriously than I took myself. Maybe it was my innocent "cub reporter" looks. Maybe it was my genuine fascination with what they had to say. Or maybe people were just dying to open up to somebody, anybody, and I just happened to be the first guy they found sitting on the street with a typewriter. Clearly, though, they needed something they weren't getting from psychotherapists, clergy, family or friends. And so they gave me their trust. I, in turn, gave them stories that were neither fiction nor nonfiction but some hitherto unknown confection of fact, fiction, fable, bibliotherapy, Socratic dialogue and Dear Abby. "Only connect," E. M. Forster once wrote, and that's what we did.
But before I typed even a single word, I gave them something else: my ears and my eyes, my total 200 percent attention. And there's precious little more in this world that people really want.
To draw them out, I asked questions. Nosy questions, personal questions, questions you're not supposed to ask.
"Why should I tell you?" some would demand, unintentionally revealing their cautious, suspicious nature. Everything they said, or did not say, revealed their personality and their life. Everything about a person, I realized, is of a piece: their shoes, their friends, the words they use. The parts express the whole. Follow any thread, you get to the heart.
No matter what people confessed, I listened without judgment and without opinion. I listened to a married secretary who was having an affair with her boss and who wanted to give him a love note. I listened to a mentally ill man who literally thought he was Elvis. I listened to a businessman in a gray suit as he broke down crying about his impending divorce. Children and crack addicts, the homeless and the famous, schizophrenics and astronauts, mayors, movie stars, millionaires and one confessed murdererI listened to them all as they told the messy, mixed-up, jumbled-up truth of their lives.
Early one evening in August, a young man came up, introduced himself as Albert, and started talking without my even asking. To him it seemed that a guy with a typewriter sitting on the sidewalk was the most natural thing in the world. I listened as he told me of his unemployment, his pregnant girlfriend, his search for an apartment. "I'm going through a lot of changes," he said, after twenty minutes of yakking. "I'm pretty shook up in life right now. Right now I'm going to pray to God. I'm thinking of praying to God."
Eventually Albert wandered off with the story I'd written for him (gratis), and as I sat there watching the passersby, a thought began to percolate in my brain. Picture the scene: about sixty people walked by each minute (I counted), about one each second. Some trudged, lost in their thoughts, looking down at the sidewalk, not even seeing me. Others paraded along in their evening gowns and tuxedos, laughing, having the time of their life. And suddenly it dawned on me that all of these people, no matter who they are sixty a minute, thirty-six hundred an hour, nearly thirty thousand in a typical eveningeverybody was living a life of unfathomable meaning and complexity. Millions and millions of them. And there I was to listen and write it down. Not for the rich and famous, but for the average and the ordinary; not for the mass media of the millions, but for the micro medium of one person at a time: a direct communication between writer and reader, instantly and on the spot, without interference by publishing conglomerates.
I've since devoted my life to writing these novels from Chicago to New York, as far west as Hawaii, north to Canada and south to Floridaon streets and online, at department stores and trade shows, at bars and bar mitzvahs. At this point, there aren't enough seats in Madison Square Garden to fit all the 22,613 people I've written for. But from the very first day, I kept a carbon copy of each story I wrote. The pile of tissue-thin copies now stands over four feet tall here in my study. They're colored white and green and pink and blue and yellowa rainbow of stories, a pillar of life's little lessons.
After all these years and all those stories, the question I still find myself puzzling over is: Why on earth did this crazy, absurd, goofy gimmick work so far beyond anything I had imagined?
On the simplest level, I know people have always enjoyed seeing my typewriterfirst the Royal, and now the portable 1937 Remington that I use, which in today's world of laptops looks like an antique. How fast I type on it and the noise of the old thing is another neat part of the appeal. (I've never been clocked, but I am wicked fast.) And while everyone has seen an athlete or a singer perform, it's unheard of to see a writer performnot by reading, but by writing on the spot. Being drawn into that process by which a writer takes the "facts" and transforms them into a story is a kick. There's just no getting around the Stupid-Human-Trick aspect to it all.
But I like to think there's something more, something that speaks to the incredible power of the life stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We need our life stories for our very survival. Stories are like those little microbes in our guts, the ones that help us digest food. If we didn't have little stories in our brains, how else could we digest our lives?
But ironicallyand this is one of the most important lessons I've learnedall 22,613 of the people I've written for were bigger than their stories. Whether it was some hot-shot wealthy vice president of a corporation, a housewife or a homeless person, I could always see beyond the story. I could look them deep in the eye, crack a smile and somehow both of us knew without saying it, "We're just two kids, making up stories about ourselves, playing make-believe."
That's the beauty of very small children: Stories to them are a game, a toy to be played with, while the real treasure is this magic moment. Soon after my daughter, Annie, began to walk, she was always stopping to look at things. She couldn't pass a store window without looking at it and asking, "Whaddat?" She'd see a crack in the sidewalk and say, "Whaddat?" The faded, cheesy display in the liquor store window of a cardboard woman holding a six-packAnnie would stop in front of it and say, "Look, Daddy!"
She had no story. She simply was. She was present everywhere we went. The story I had in my headthat we were walking to the dinerthat didn't occupy Annie. She was just walking.
Living minute by minute, in the moment: that's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. To quote a 60-Second Novel I wrote in 1985 for a woman named Evelyn: "In the real world, happy endings don't just happen to us. We write our own happy endings, by creating our own happy present right now." And that, as best as I can figure it, is the whole enchilada.
And so what follows are just over sixty of my favorite 60 Second Novels, each of them written on the spot in response to a story that someone told me. As for my own story: Not only did my crazy idea to write stories on the street bring me a career, it brought me my wife, Alice (whom I met while writing her a 60-Second Novel), and I guess you could say my dream of becoming a novelist also came true. Not quite the way I'd expectedwriting novels on the street, one page in length, for one person at a time. But then no good story turns out the way you expect.
(c)1999 Dan Hurley. All rights reserved. Reprinted from The 60-Second Novelist by Dan Hurley. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc.