Your life in just six words

Scenes from a writing workshop with Wade Rouse.

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Write your own biography in six words. Now. That’s the assignment.

About 25 aspiring writers, mostly UChicago alumni, mostly middle-aged, bend over their notebooks and start scribbling.

Wade Rouse, who has been called “the love child of Erma Bombeck and David Sedaris,” waits at the front of the room, Cobb 301. The three-hour class, held on a Saturday in September, is a writing and publishing workshop for beginners; the next day’s workshop, also three hours long, is for more advanced writers.

On the board Rouse has written “FEAR” in big letters, and in even bigger letters, “VOICE.” (Among many pieces of advice Rouse dispenses during the workshop: “Write as if your parents are dead.”) His first memoir, America’s Boy, about growing up gay in the Missouri Ozarks, was published in 2007; his original, preferred title was Fat Boys Shouldn’t Wear Ascots. Since then Rouse has published three more memoirs: Reflections of a Prep School Mommy Handler (2008), At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream (2009), and It’s All Relative (2011). He also edited I’m Not the Biggest Bitch in this Relationship (2011), an anthology of essays about dogs.

Time’s up. One by one, the students introduce themselves—some by full name, some by just their first, like an AA meeting—mention where they’re from, then launch into their life story.

“Elitist, question if appropriate, 2012, turmoil.”

“Nice,” Rouse says.

“Spy’s daughter,” says a woman with a plummy English accent. “Lived everywhere. Now writes.”

“Huh,” he says.

“Traveled world, wrote much, lost pen.”

Rouse laughs.

“Running from medicine, everything I know.”

“Wow. You hear these and you know way more about a person than just what they’re telling you,” Rouse observes.

“Jumping at every career, became recruiter.”

“Hm.”

“Confounded by life perpetually. Good times.”

Rouse laughs again. “Cute.”

“Love to see my plants bloom.”

“Oh. Very nice.”

“Finding the lost like me.”

That’s only five words, by my calculation, but perhaps I misheard. “Wow,” says Rouse. “Great.”

The minimemoirs keep coming: “Big heart and dirty mind, almost art.” “Split soul—to analyze or create?” “Always on the verge of something.” “Looking inside for the lost dream.” “Books, weights, wine, wanderlust, and women.” Rouse has something kind to say about all of them.

“I’m Judy,” says one of the last people to read. “Originally from California, live in Evanston.” Her six words: “My heart is where Bob is.”

Rouse says nothing, just smiles.

“I’m Bob [X’64],” says the man to her right. The class explodes in laughter. “And I live in Evanston too.”

“I would hope so,” says Rouse.

His six: “Too much writing is wrote rotten.”

Rouse laughs. “That’s true,” he says, “and good.”

I’m last. I remind him that I’m writing about this workshop for the alumni magazine. “Oh dear God,” he says. “I swear to you I’m sober. I’m semisober.”

And then it’s my turn. I’m cagey by nature. “I get writer’s block over six—”

Rouse laughs yet again. He laughs easily. “It’s good.”

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