Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Man oh Manifesto

A few weeks ago, I came across an article about writing a manifesto. I had a vague idea of what a manifesto was, sort of a “rules to live by” meets “wild-eyed fanatic” mash-up (another new word that’s already overused.) So of course I immediately thought, ahh, here’s some blog material. Because that’s how I usually think. (Not really.)

First, I imagined what sort of manifesto I would write. Clearly, it would be funny. Very moving and deep, in a funny way. Perfect, actually. Except that I don’t usually write things like manifestos. They’re too concrete and directive. And they use big words. Bigger words than I use because I’m not very deep, or a concrete thinker, or inclined to issuing directives. I mean, really, how am I to know what others should do? I barely know what I should do.

Second, I realized that if I actually had a shot at creating a moving, deep and yet pee-your-pants-funny manifesto, I better see what one looked like. Or even maybe just look up the definition. To be honest, this is always what I realize at this point. It's my "go to" second step. Research. I research. A lot. Because that’s a great way to act like you’re working, while not really actually working.

So here’s what I found. There are 23,700,000 Google results for “manifesto” with the first one being the Wikipedia definition. (That's twenty three million, seven hundred thousand for those of you, who, like me, tend to lose count after two, maybe three, zeros.) So of course I went to the Wikipedia site, and learned the definition of manifesto, which is “A manifesto is a public declaration of principles and intentions, often politcal in nature. However, manifestos relating to religious belief are rather referred to as credo. Manifestos may also be life stance related.” It comes from the Latin word "manifestum", which means clear or conspicuous. But, given some of the examples of manifestos I found, I don’t think everyone looked up the definition in Wikipedia.

Wikipedia lead me to some interesting stuff. For example, out of all the manifestos they could have chosen to quote they selected an excerpt from the Maintenance Art Manifesto written by Mierle Laderman Ukeles in 1969. Here is the quote they included:

"Maintenance is a drag: it takes all the fucking time (lit.) The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom. The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs -- minimum wages, housewives - no pay. Clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby's diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking garbage, watch out don't put things in your nose, what shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don't litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets, go to the store, I'm out of perfume, say it again - he doesn't understand, seal it again - it leaks, go to work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young."

After I read this I realized I probably didn’t have to write a manifesto, Mierle was pretty darn close to universal. But maybe there were others that would come even closer to representing my personal manifesto. (Although that was before I actually read Mierle’s entire manifesto, wherein she proposes to live in the museum and do the maintenance as an art exhibit – and then extends it to the disposition and cleaning of other maintenance objects such as garbage trucks – I don’t see myself doing that.) I got to Google result number 750 before I realized that I was just polishing the rocket, (um no, wrong metaphor) before I realized that I was already done with my research and further googling would be silly. Here is my list of things I learned about manifestos.

Things I’ve Learned About Manifestos

  1. Other people are more likely to read it if it has a great name, no matter what it actually says inside. Probably the best example of this is the Peanut Butter Manifesto. I doubt I would have read it if I’d known it was about what Yahoo isn’t doing right and not peanut butter, as I’d originally thought. Although it’s certainly worth a read. Second best is The Awesomeness Manifesto, written by Umair Haque for the Harvard Business Review, which in no way lived up to its title (the Awesomeness Manifesto, that is, not the Harvard Business Review.)
  2. Umair Haque is crazy for manifestos. I found four within the first 50 or so examples of manifestos. The aforementioned Awesomeness Manifesto, The Builders Manifesto, The Generation M Manifesto and The Smart Growth Manifesto to name a few. And it made me wonder. Can one person really write more than one manifesto? Shouldn’t there be some sort of limit on the number of times you can tell the world how it should behave? Or am I the one that’s crazy here? Although, to be honest, the salutation at the beginning of "The Generation M Manifesto" is my favorite. Like many manifestos, it is written like an open letter, but this one is addressed to all the old people who run the world. How precious is that?
  3. Manifestos generally manifest as a series of rules or points. Shorter is usually better here. Five Rules for Life actually limits you to five rules, but on the up side, you get to pick your own. The Simple Living Manifesto has only two rules, but then they give you 72 more rules to clarify the two simple ones. Some of the additional 72 include “Be present.” “Learn what “enough” is.” And my personal favorite “Declutter before organizing.” (emphasis mine) Oh man. I’ve been doing it all wrong!
  4. There are many resources available to you should you decide to write your own manifesto. These include “How To Write A Manifesto” which handily explains what size paper you should use and gives a nifty example of a possible format, and a remarkably concise document also titled “How To Write a Manifesto” found on the Scottish Parliament site which suggests that you include pictures of desired outcomes, either drawn by yourself or found on the internet. I like the homemade quality of that idea. gives specific examples about what not to do and suggests a reasonable number of pages (2 – 4. Max 5, please.) Lance Whipple in his blog creatively titled “Lance Whipple” covers a wide territory when giving you advice on creating your manifesto, including guidelines for the appropriate number of rules to live by and suggesting advice from the Air Force little blue pamphlet on “Core Values”. The “How To Write An Avant-Garde Manifesto” by Lee Scrivner, goes into great detail about the use of caffeine as a brainstorming aid and the now famous (I’m sure) no quotations imperative, but I have the sneaking suspicion he’s not completely serious.
  5. Manifestos do not have to be about earth shattering subjects. The winner in this category clearly has to be “really. tights are not pants” although the runners up are “Tank Girl: Post Feminist Media Manifesto” and “The Gobbledygook Manifesto.” Although, to be completely honest, the “Tank Girl: Post Feminist Media Manifesto” went mostly over my head, I just liked the movie and the Gobbledygook Manifesto is here because I liked the Gobbledygook Volume Analysis Chart. Oh and an honorable mention goes out to The Cloud Appreciation Society.

And that’s five things, and I have it on good authority, or at least sort of by consensus, that a list of five things is perfectly adequate for anyone. Any more and you’re just showing off.

If you’ve stuck with me so far, here’s your prize, a lovely three part series of interviews on The Transom Review with Ira Glass, on what makes great radio. It’s long but well worth every minute.

Ira, who’s name is practically synonymous with his show, This American Life, (which, in fact, I can’t even sit here and type without hearing Ira’s distinctive voice saying in my ear “This American Life presented by Chicago Public Radio”) talks at one point about the Big Idea and how what often makes radio stories worth doing is how well they can tie into that Big Idea, the universal idea or concept that makes a story bigger than itself. So maybe that’s the takeaway here, that manifestos are simply an attempt to tie into that Big Idea, the one that makes sense out of nonsense, creates order out of chaos and a map in the wilderness.

Or maybe not.