It Is Amazing What People Can Say in Six Words
"The exits were entrances in disguise." -- Shannon B., writer, SMITHteens.com
When we launched SMITH Magazine on January 6, 2006 (National Smith Day, which we didn't invent, but latched on to) the idea was to create a new kind of Web magazine. The content would be largely user-generated, then curated by people who edit things for a living. It would be a bold new blend of the professional and the amateur, fueled by our populist, participatory mission: "Everyone has a story."
We wanted a Web magazine. Four years later, we've got something much better: an online community. And it was all a happy accident.
Back in the fall of 2006, one of our interns had an idea: she wanted to travel across the country with a friend and meet all her online buddies from an arty social network called Consummating.com. We called it the "In Real Life" project -- and visions of a reality TV show danced in our heads. The two young writers would drive across the U.S. finding adventures, picking up work as needed, crashing with virtual friends "IRL," and videoblogging the whole experience. They were up for anything. On day three, their car broke down, one blogged that the other one was being a bitch, someone said something ugly about the other's mom, and that was it. They bailed. Game over.
Suddenly we had to fill a big hole on the front page of SMITHmag.net. We quickly popped in a new idea we had been kicking around: giving Hemingway's legendary six-word novel ("For sale: baby shoes, never worn") a personal twist. We combined the classic storytelling challenge with our passion for nonfiction confessionals and dubbed it "Six-Word Memoirs." Then we called up some guys we met at a tech conference about this new thing called Twitter and asked if they wanted to partner up to send one daily short life story to anyone who followed our @smithmag feed.
Four years and more than 200,000 six-word memoirs later, we continue to be blown away by what people are capable of saying in just six words, the ways that others have adapted the form, and — not to get all Chicken Soup-y here — the unexpected little gems and gifts that launching this project has brought into our lives.
There are the teens. We gave teenagers their own six-word site to collect memoirs for the all-teen six-word memoir book I Can't Keep My Own Secrets. But, within days, it was out of our hands: SMITHteens belongs to Anna in New Zealand, Ebony in Australia, Mike in Queens, Laura in D.C., and the dozens of others who log in daily to document and share their lives. To these writers, a memoir doesn't need to encapsulate a whole life, but a fleeting feeling, a gym period or a first kiss. They have each other's phone numbers and Skype screen names; they make videos for birthdays and send original poems to brighten a bad day. They fly to meet online friends, and introduce school friends to their secret world.
Whether they use the six-word form for something as simple as decorating a dorm room or as significant as educating about a rare disease, they've made it something more powerful than we imagined.
There are the teachers. In classrooms from kindergarten to graduate school, educators have found the six-word memoir an inspiring writing lesson. From a third-grade classroom in New Jersey, we heard "Life is better in soft pajamas" and one student's precocious Zen observation: "Tried surfing on a calm day." In Charleston, South Carolina, a creative writing teacher named Junius Wright makes a series of six-word memoir videos with his students each year.