Brand building through storytelling

The poetry of random facts about ourselves

There’s a certain kind of online exploration that reminds me of a stroll through the maze-like back streets of medieval city. On impulse you choose this gateway over that, a left turn instead of a right and just as you’re wondering, “How did I get here?”, you happen upon a marvel so in tune with your own history, or perhaps your unspoken desires of the moment, you could swear it had been waiting just for you—never mind all the untold thousands who have paused before in this very spot.

For me those online epiphanies include “the Ellie poem,” which I discovered on the website of writer Ami McKay. An American college student, Eleanor Wait, wrote the poem in 1967, the year I graduated from high school. It consists of seemingly random revelations, by turns funny and poignant, exuberant and anxious, that gradually take shape as a vivid self-portrait of a woman on the brink of adult life yet still attached to the pleasures of childhood.

She called her poem “Ellie: an Inventory of Being,” little dreaming of the life it would go on to lead without her. After winning a national poetry competition judged by Marianne Moore, it became a teaching tool in writing classes around the world. I remember wishing I could share “Ellie” with my mother, whose great joy during the 60s was the creative writing classes she taught for gifted students. She was always on the lookout for another student-friendly exercise. How she would have seized upon “Ellie.”

Everyone should write their own “Ellie” at least once in their lives, suggests Ami McKay. Did she guess that soon enough, practically everyone would? They’re not calling their creations poetry, of course. The word smacks of dusty anthologies and candlelit readings that no one attends except the dutiful spouse of the poet. Hence the new term of choice: “25 random things about me.” You can’t get more populist than that. Fittingly, the craze took off on Facebook, where an estimated 5 million people posted lists in a single week. There’s no slowdown in sight, but that’s because high school English teachers haven’t yet turned the whole joyous explosion into homework.

I’ve been sitting on the sidelines, and not for want of prompting on my Facebook page. Each new list arrives with the standard friendly suggestion that I post my own “because I want to know more about you.” The way I see it, anybody wanting to learn about me can learn plenty on this website and in My Mother’s Daughter. Surely I get enough airtime already! The thing is, most people don’t. The urge to connect with others through words, to find purpose and beauty and distinction in the unpredictable jumble of an ordinary life, is as old as human nature.

Before humans had books or TV, let alone iPods crammed with diversions, they gathered to listen to the bard, who celebrated their proudest triumphs as a people and found meaning in their ever-present crises. The words of great bards like theBeowulf poet still resonate, long after their names were forgotten.

But for every mead-hall genius, there must have been a horde of schlepper bards with more ambition than talent.So it shouldn’t be surprising that the “25 things” crowd (who contemplate themselves, not their embattled civilizations) have come up with plenty of inanely solipsistic banalities. Thank you, Claire Suddath of Timefor “25 Things I Didn’t Want to Know About You” for gathering some particularly egregious examples. My favourite unintentional howler: “I like to tape my thumbs to my hands to see what it would be like to be a dinosaur.”

Who comes up with such stuff? People who want to be found intriguing. People striving to be somebody. People who wish, just once, that some cool person would smile at one of their lines and think, “Wish I’d thought of that!” or “Hey! So I’m not the only one!” In short, people we know and people we are. Thanks to “25 things,” we all have a template and a throng of pals to cheer us on. We have the chance declare ourselves and our uniqueness from within the safety of a crowd. No wonder so many can’t resist.

My Facebook friends include some natural writers (not all of them published) whose 25-thinging suggests the rhythmic power and off-the-wall juxtapositions of poetry. The best of these lists only look random; they show the inner logic of a creative mind weaving a pattern, albeit unawares.

If you want inspiration for your own list of random things, you can’t do better than Ellie (who, I should point out, doesn’t stop at 25). It’s hard to quote just one passage in her poem, when there are so many fine, pithy ones that amplify and underscore each other like the instruments in an orchestra. But I’ll settle on this one:

I think too fast.

I hate grease paint, but I love crowds.

I love Degas but I don’t think I like

Horses or ballet.

I’ve always wanted to be the first woman president,

And a marine biologist,

And literary lioness,

And an archeologist

But I’m allergic to dust.

Ellie grew up to be an antique dealer, mystery novelist and writer of children’s books. She calls herself Lea Wait now, and she lives in Maine. You can visit herhere.

Footnote to readers younger than I am: Ellie’s line about greasepaint and crowds is a riff on a hit musical of the 60s, The Roar of the Greasepaint,  the Smell of the Crowd. I never saw the show, but I loved the title. Reading Ellie’s poem, I thought, “So you loved it, too.”


Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

Lea Wait
February 12, 2009 at 12:12PM

Thank you, Rona, for remembering the “Ellie poem.” Movie tales of the 60s to the contrary, forty years ago writing about oneself was considered forward—bold—and, actually, when you got right down to it—most likely a bit boring. Who cared about these details except their owner, and perhaps his or her mother, or lover? It was a time when families had secrets: clandestine, veiled, cryptic, private things only they knew, and which most likely even they never voiced. We lived in a world of partially veiled truths. Of course, families today have secrets, too. But in this age of tell-all memoirs and reality TV and talk shows, of Facebook lists and IMing and on-line journals, privacy is defined differently. Better? Worse? No. Just different. No wonder mysteries are often our best-selling novels. We have little left in our lives. All best wishes, Rona! May there be a a bit of the intriguing unknown in your future! Lea Wait

Rona Maynard
February 12, 2009 at 12:12 PM

Lea, I’m delighted to see you here. How appropriate that the first reader to comment on my post about “Ellie” should be Ellie herself. I was struck by your comments about mystery in life and in literature. As for my future–the great mystery–my goal for years now has been to surprise myself. Cross your fingers for me! And thanks for visiting.

Jules Torti
February 13, 2009 at 4:04AM

Thanks for the historical reference explaining the greasepaint in Ellie’s poem (as I am a product of 1974). It was enlightening to read of the humble beginnings of the 25 Randoms that spread like avian bird flu through Facebook. I read a few equivalents of the guy who had dinosaur-like tendencies behind closed doors. Admittedly, I had to Google “solipsistic” because I thought for sure I massaged someone this week with that growing on their back. A wonderful morning read with my tea. Thanks Rona.

February 18, 2009 at 5:05AM

Wonderful! Thanks for this.

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