Post Road Magazine #28

The Little Things

Will Dowd

One afternoon last winter, while I was lingering in the gift shop where my mother works, I became convinced that a new literary genre was being born in America.
    The inspirational quote.
    They've been around for a while.
    They grace the front of your aunt's get-well card, the back bumper of the car that cuts you off, the side of the disposable coffee cup you turn in your hands so as not to burn yourself.
    But now they've ascended to the wooden wall sign.
    There's not a home in my suburban town without one.
    They have replaced the novel and the painting in one fell swoop.
    They have their roots in the headstone epitaph, the wartime propaganda poster, the philosophical billboard and street graffiti.
    Happiness is learning to dance in the rain.
     Enjoy the little things in life for someday you will realize they were the big things.
     Don't give up hope-when the sun goes down, the stars come out.
    The words-stock, stale, stenciled-encourage two contradictory impulses: motivation and passivity.
    They try to light a fire under you without striking a match.
    It's existentialism without the dread.
    Momento mori without the death.
    Carpe diem without all that aggressive seizing.
    It made me wonder: What would I-a skeptic and snob-hang on my wall?
    At the same time, I was becoming interested in biography as a minimalist art.
    As haiku.
    According to Richard Holmes, my favorite practitioner of the craft, a biographer must possess "the ability to give a snapshot impression of a whole life caught from one fleeting but revealing angle."
    Is it possible to find a shape within a life that reveals the life?
    Is a life a fractal?
    I don't remember consciously deciding to blend my two preoccupations-the form of the inspirational sign and the content of the micro-biography-but I suspect the link was made for me.
    Many signs appropriate the quotes of long-dead geniuses who currently rest in peace in the public domain.
    Even the most weightless words acquire gravity when attributed to Albert Einstein.
    There's no sense of the actual lives lived by these luminaries, of the suffering they endured or inflicted, of the absurdities they committed or survived.
    Just a kind of brand recognition.
    I think that offends me the most.
    To find these stories, I scoured letters and journals in library basements.
    I wanted to discover fresh shapes in previously ransacked lives.
    At the same time, I was wary of imposing these shapes.
    In the writing, I was inspired by the clarity and rhythm of Jacques Prévert's poetry.
    In the graphic design, I tried to disrupt the reading experience.
    To slow it down.
    To force the reader not to scan or skim but to truly look.
    When I first showed these broadsides to a friend, she was concerned.
    "Once they're on the wall, that's it. They won't change. Won't they be boring after a while?"
    This is now a valid anxiety for any two-dimensional artwork that is not a touchscreen.
    My aim-or rather my hope-is that these broadsides provoke in the reader a desire to reread what she has just read.
    News that stays news.
    That's one of my favorite definitions of poetry.
    The other comes from Jacques Prévert.
    Poetry, it's the prettiest nickname we give to life.

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