What follows—a blog post about a Facebook status update about a book about, among other things, avoiding Facebook—may at first seem seem ironic, since the first sentence of The Year of Living Autobiographically is “The plan: ditch FB for one year.” But what ended up happening (as you’ll know, reader, if you happen to have read the book) is that although my Oulipian self-dare meant that I stopped writing on FB, I did keep reading. In other words, it was my social media writing and sharing that went old school—paper, ink, and eventually, the post office—for 366 days.
But I could never totally and completely quit the thing. “I haven’t fully ditched FB, as I’d hoped I would,” I wrote on 12 December; then on 2 January: “I put my FB account on hold two days after my dad died. ‘It feels like an inadequate medium for the expression of grief,’ I wrote in an e-mail to friends and family.” It still feels that way to me, and I still wish I could have the fortitude to reject it. But I love the pictures of our friends’ children! And I love keeping up with friends who live far away.
And I love it when this sort of thing happens: I recently sent a copy of the book to Floyd Cheung, associate professor in Smith College’s English department, where I was very happy to teach an intermediate fiction workshop last spring (and where Emily served as the Elizabeth Drew Professor for two years). Floyd wrote an incredibly thoughtful and generous response to the book on his Facebook page; I’m sincerely grateful for his kind words, which I quote here with his permission:
I just finished reading The Year of Living Autobiographically by Tom Hopkins and feel compelled to comment on it in Facebook, since Tom set himself the challenge of writing a status update every day for one year from 2011-12. Apparently before 2011, FB had a 420-character limit on status updates. Tom adopted this constraint by writing precisely 420 characters every night before going to bed. During the course of this year, Tom writes about events major (his father dies) and mundane (what he eats for dinner). Along the way, he recounts, too, his experiences raising his young son, dreams, and workaday life as a teacher and writer.
The theorist Lauren Berlant observes that “life” is in danger of becoming a genre with set conventions. She points out that when we say, “get a life,” we project certain expectations onto our interlocutors about employment, partnership, possessions, etc.
In The Year of Living Autobiographically Tom successfully plays with the conventions of the typical autobiography–usually a book written later in life that purports to tell one’s life story. Instead of a late-in-life reflection, we get a sense of life as daily accretion. I believe this has a chance of redefining what it means to “get a life.” By writing about the music he hears at his son’s preschool, a butterfly that he thinks is dead, and his wife’s vitamin-taking habits, Tom gives them a kind of value. He doesn’t elevate these moments as much as he makes them add up to what we can call “life.” This achievement is at once modest and, potentially, life-changing.
A few times, the gift-economy experiment aspect of The Year of Living Autobiographically has resulted in marvelous and unexpected swaps, so now I’m really looking forward to reading Jazz at Manzanar, Floyd’s chapbook of poems.
By the way, I’m still trying to find a traditional publisher for the book. I keep getting the nicest rejections (one editor wrote “the searching and the fierceness of the love and hope and acceptance reminded me frequently of writers like Marilynne Robinson,” which buoys my spirit still), but no home as of yet.
If you, reader, happen to be an agent or an editor, and your interest is piqued, please drop me a line—I’d be delighted to send you a copy!