Michael Kimball

The Life Story of L

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: My friend Adam Robinson was one of the curators for a performance art festival, the Transmodern in Baltimore, and he asked me if I wanted to participate. I asked him what he thought a writer could do as performance and we made some jokes about that. But then I suggested that I could write people’s life stories for them and then I remembered this bunch of postcards that I had just gotten in the mail. That’s how the project started.
The first postcard I wrote was for Bart O’Reilly, a painter, who quit art school in Dublin to work as an ice cream man in Ocean City, which is how he met the woman who became his wife. When I finished the postcard and looked up, a line had formed. For the rest of the night, I interviewed dozens of people, wrote out each person’s life story, and then gave them the postcard. I did this for four hours straight without getting up out of the chair that I was sitting in. That was three years ago. Since then, I have interviewed almost 300 people in person, over the telephone, and through email. The one thing that I have learned so far is that everybody is amazing.


L was born in 1985, but she isn’t sure where exactly. Her birth started in Brighton, but there were complications, so L was rushed to a hospital in Ann Arbor. It was there that L’s mother died and L has always felt as if this were her fault even though there isn’t anything that she could have done. L’s father never blamed her for this, but he has always seemed lonely. L’s father never remarried, so the absence has always stayed with both of them.
During the summers, her father would take her to big family get-togethers and she would swim in the lake with all her cousins and eat lots of hot dogs, but no amount of people has ever been enough. This is why L collects things—bits of paper with writing on them, photographs of people on vacations or at holidays, any pieces of evidence for the human condition. She has shoeboxes full of these things that she keeps in the back of her closet under shoeboxes full of shoes. L’s friends think she is a kleptomaniac, but L doesn’t think it’s stealing if it is something that should be hers.
L’s first boyfriend was a guy named M who she collected from one of her high school girlfriends. He was a good kisser, but L gave M back to her girlfriend when she realized that she had made two other people lonely (her girlfriend and her father). L knows that it is weird, but she wants to take her father with her on her dates. Five years ago, L started a fire that ruined the front part of their house. L isn’t sure whether she did it on purpose or not, but her father has never blamed her for that either, which almost makes her feel even more guilty than when she found out that her birth killed her mother.
L and her father lived in a hotel while the insurance company rebuilt their house. L was able to save her shoeboxes full of collected things, but now all the photographs and little bits of paper smell like smoke. That’s part of why she started dating guys who like cigars. She likes the smell on their clothes and in their hair. She broke up with the last guy after he decided to stop smoking and get healthy. Now she wonders if she’ll think about him every day for the rest of her life.


Michael Kimball is the author of four books, including Dear Everybody (which The Believer calls “a curatorial masterpiece”) and, most recently, Us (which Time Out Chicago calls “a simply gorgeous and astonishing book”). His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Bomb, and New York Tyrant. His books have been translated into a dozen languages—including Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean, and Greek. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), a couple of documentaries, the 510 Readings, and the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine. His new novel, Big Ray, will be published by Bloomsbury in Fall 2012.