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.
There are the adults. Google Alerts are a wonderful thing. It's how we learned that a spinning instructor in Newport, Kentucky, was yelling six-word memoirs to pump up his class; a convention of computer security experts held their own six-word contest ("Never Let A Breach Happen Again"; "Obsessive Worrying — is the door locked?"; "My personal heroes? Ones and Zeros" just to give you a taste); and a blog about RVs got 51 submissions for a call for "Six Words about Your RV Life."
Week after week, people got in touch with us directly about how much the form meant to them. A woman named Abby sent us six-word memoirs from her teen patients at a psychiatric hospital in Forest Park, Illinois. Jolene, a nurse in Oakland, California, wrote to tell us this story about a patient with leukemia:
I was taking care of this 21 yr old guy who has had Leukemia since he's been 8 yrs old. He's pretty debilitated, is wasting away right now — a very sad case. I brought in your book and asked him to come up w/ his own 6-word memoir. He thought about it for about 2 minutes (mind you before that i could barely get him to engage w/ me, he was extremely depressed as you can imagine). He then just blurted out: "Fat man eats pie then farts." It's a metaphor for life you see, we indulge ourselves then we die.
Back at SMITH, a contributor who goes by the screen name "Miandering" documented her year of traveling the globe in a series of more than 100 six-word memoirs submitted one by one: "Sticky rice at every meal. Yum" (a great start in Thailand) to "Wet flip-flops. Shiny linoleum. Bad combination." (a tough break in Malaysia). She continues to travel, and the memoirs keep coming in, diary-like, six words at a time.
At an event with The Rumpus and McSweeney's in NYC last spring, we had a few dozen brave six-word memoirists create a wave of short-short storytelling, in front of 300 people, and on the same stage writer Amy Tan and singer Amanda Palmer had been on a few minutes earlier.
There are the celebrities. We love having Sarah Silverman's hilarious six-word memoir (and won't repeat it in this family-friendly space) and Malcolm Gladwell's ironic one ("Father: 'Anything but journalism.' I rebelled."), but admittedly have the softest spot for memoirists we've long admired, and now have an excuse to contact. When we emailed J.R. Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar, he was kind and responsive, but said he was deep in the middle of a book and it might take him a while, and, "What was the final, final deadline?" Sure, it's only six words, but we've come to see just exactly how seriously writers famous and obscure alike take their words. Four months and three email reminders later, J.R. submitted his short-short life story: "Say when, childhood whispered, pouring, spilling." It was worth the wait.
Another wait that meant the world to us was for a man who reinvigorated the long-form memoir in the '90s. We had been chasing Frank McCourt since we started putting together our first collection, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. For years, no luck. Then on a Sunday morning in late March, Larry woke up to find an email from an address he didn't recognize. Subject line: DEEP SIX.
Larry: Here is my half dozen.
"Miserable childhood leads to royalties."
Larry was elated, then realized: it's only five words! A note was emailed back, hoping he'd respond, yet freaking out in case that one email was going to be all we got from Frank. He wrote back right away:
I thought I'd get away with it. ("Brevity is the soul of wit," said that English bard.) So... "The miserable childhood..."
Sometimes, there's even God. In an op-ed column in a paper in a small town in northern Ontario, Rev. Dr. Bill Steadman suggested the faithful distill their beliefs by using the form to ask themselves "What Would Jesus Do? ...if asked to write a six-word memoir." Priests and rabbis alike have suggested their congregations try six-word prayers. "While there is no 'right' way to pray," explained Rev. D. Geoffrey Taylor in a sermon he sent us, "sometimes trying a new way to voice our prayers to God can be a good way to help us focus on what it is we really want from God. So here goes: Write down your own six-word prayers."
And when you have the six bug like we do, you can hear six-word stories, phrases, and memoirs across a crowded room, or even see them across the street.
Books are wonderful, and you should definitely buy them all, but books are just a beginning. For us, the magic happens when you put down our latest Six-Word Memoir book, It All Changed in an Instant, and are inspired to call your mother, text a friend, or even pick up a pen and start writing.