by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser, January 29, 2010 4:52 PM
"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 &dmash; 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 screennames; 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.
Six-Word Memoirs by Teens: The Video from SMITHmag on Vimeo.
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," to give you just 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
by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser, February 13, 2009 11:35 AM
Well, it's Friday. Thanks for having us, Powell's! All week, we've been looking back on the six-word memoir phenomenon ? the contributors' stories, the assignments in schools, the six-word memoirists' past writings, and the evolution of confessional culture.
Before we cede the stage to Christopher Moore (Six-word memoir: "Heartbroken, until the bitch finally died"), I'd like to take a peek into the future. To the delight of many ? and the chagrin of a few ? there are two more six-word memoir books in the works right now. The next one will be entirely written by 13- to 19-year-olds. They went to town on SMITHteens.com, each submitting an average of eight memoirs for each one an adult submitted at SMITHmag.net. I'm only 10 years older than some of these writers, but I feel a massive generation gap because I didn't grow up online. I scribbled my darkest teen angst in notebooks secreted under my mattress; these guys display every thought to the world. Unsurprisingly, many of them are huge Postsecret fans, and I got to write for the Postsecret blog about their memoirs, much like I'm getting to do here about yours.
After the teen book comes a straightforward sequel, containing six-word memoirs about every aspect of life. The best part of giving six-word memoir talks around the country this month was knowing that we could publish stories from the amazing people we met, and expand the community even more. Powell's has even gotten in on the action, running a contest for submissions to the next book. So far, you've submitted over 700 responses, proving yet again that "six words" is addictive. Even Daniel Handler did 10:
On this site, Catherine suggested, "Came to rainy city for sunshine." I'm not sure if she's local, but as a New York-based Portland fan, I certainly think it fits. Kevin McCloskey went the list-of-words route, which I don't always love, but his were the delightfully quirky and alliterative "Hungry. Horny. Healthy. Hairy. Humble. Horticultural."
Jon Lauderbaugh submitted, "Um,well,oh,uh,articulate perhaps?" ? I think he might be describing our NPR appearance.
As always, I'm partial to the hot word-nerd action:
Librarians loved me. Gym teachers didn't. ?Kelly
Passed out grading papers, currently "comma"tose. ?Janet Morgan
At ten, I could spell pneumonoultrasilicovolcanoconiosis. ?d Bouchette
Loved the semicolon; didn't love God. ?RJE
Fell in love with fictional men. ?Blandy Snorhal
Which reminds me that, thankfully, you are the first set of six-word memoirists to avoid repeat uses of the words "Edward" and "Cullen."
As in Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak, technology had a huge impact on your personal lives:
Lost family to Facebook. No Flair. ?Lynn Otto
My life is my blog. Mostly. ?Sarah Hoopes
Harvey Kurland actually used us as a personal ad, writing, "Continuously Searching for an Honest Relationship!" and then linking to his Myspace page.
Some of you may agree with Jeremiah, who writes, "The summation proved too much pressure," but we think six is something everyone can do. We hope, whether you win this contest or not, you'll submit at Sixwordmemoirs.com for consideration in the next book. After every live event, we inevitably find a completely brilliant six-word memoir on the ground, beer stained and stepped on, and can't find the author so we can publish it. Don't be the online equivalent!
We don't know where this odd little self-expression project will end up, but we know we want everyone to be part of it. To borrow a six-word memoir from June Searles, "You ain't seen nothing yet, Toots!"
by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser, February 12, 2009 12:51 PM
At our reading at the Burnside store
last week, someone asked us, mostly in jest, "So, are you destroying creativity with your six-word memoirs
I, of course, deadpanned: "Yes."
Yet it's a question that comes up, at SMITH and elsewhere, lately: is this Twitter-y, text-message, "25 Random Things" culture turning us all into short-form zombies, spilling our guts in 140 characters (or less) and then falling asleep in front of reality TV? Of course not.
Our need to tell stories and express ourselves goes back to the time of the cavemen and extends to the dinner-table conversation you'll have tonight. We really want to tell stories, and we're drawn to storytellers, and technology has made it easier to tell our stories. And so what if they're short? Short is a start. The woman who wrote the six-word memoir that begins our first book, "After Harvard, had baby with crackhead" has never written about her intense life. Now she's working on a full-length memoir. That, for us, is the idea.
Many people really don't think that their own story is valid. They say, "Who would want to know that? I don't have a story." A lightening bolt went off in my head when I realized I didn't know all that much about my own grandfather's story about coming over from Russia when he was three years old. So I asked him, and he said, "Oh, there's not much to tell." I prodded him a bit and finally he started talking — and didn't stop for three hours. So everyone has a story and sometimes, sadly, no one asks them for it. I decided to put our last name — the most common surname in America — in all caps and start a magazine with the hope that SMITH Magazine's infectious, addictive and passionate spirit will spread to all of us: one person, one story at a time.
While my grandfather and many of us need encouragement to start talking, many of today's new generation of storytellers can't imagine a media world in which they're not part of the process — they refuse to passively take in the world and its media, but rather demand to shape and tell the culture narrative of their time.
A six-word memoir is one good way to start because it's not a novel, and it's not a 2,000-word column. You're done in six words, which makes it a very unscary thing to try. And then after you try it, you're like, "Hey, I can do this...just like Dave Eggers or George Saunders, or Elizabeth Gilbert," and then you get the bug. That's one simple way to tell your story. There are many others, which play with the form many different ways. In the spirit of today's list mania, here are seven of our favorite short-attention span, largely crowdsourced personal storytelling sites, with a few nods to love stories in their varied shapes and forms.
Cassette From My Ex: The mixed taped of your life, digitized and annotated with the stories behind the songs.
Mortified: Where grown men and women confront their past with bravery and wit. The videos are cringe-worthy, hilarious, incredible.
Why Do You Do What You Do?: A project in which people are asked the simple question that defines such a big part of most of our lives, answering in just a few well-chosen words (and sometimes images).
To-Do List: Our lives, in all their insane, obsessive, glory, as described in lists.
FOUND: Lost letters, displaces sticky notes, piles of amazing Polaroids, and other detris that we find and morph from trash into stories, one post at a time.
Other People's Love Letters: From a Western Union telegram from the 1940s to an "I Love You" scribbled in red pen on a book of matches and a million saved IMs, this site and book is a look at love letters through history, and a chance to submit your own for a future book...and posterity.
PostSecret: The granddaddy of what's been called "the intimacy revolution," needs no explanation. PostSecret remains an inspiration as to what people are capable of expressioning, and why they need to do so — and how the passion of one person, Frank Warren, means so much to so many.
by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser, February 11, 2009 10:26 AM
We recently added a T-shirt printing function
to the Six-Word Memoir website. When I got to make one myself (and what snazzy little numbers they are!) I realized I wasn't dying to walk around Manhattan with "I finally threw away his toothbrush" emblazoned on my bosom. So I scrapped my own ode to empowerment, healing, and disposing of mildewed plastic, in favor of Vittorio Giannini's "I wrote a book about this."
I find the whole thing hilariously meta, since the line is a six-word memoir and I made a book of... well, you get it. But in fact, I didn't really write the book ? hundreds of you did. And many of our contributors, on all parts of the famous and obscure spectrum, have written books of their own. I can't possibly list them all, but in the grand tradition of "If you like Giorgio, you'll love Primo," here are some books you can check out for words 7, 8, 9, 10, etc...
First the big wigs: Daniel Handler's "Our song: Pat Benetar's 'We Belong'" could entice you towards Adverbs, a quirky exploration of love, or A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is, of course, a litany of heartbreak. Elizabeth Gilbert's "My life's accomplishments? Sanity, and you" is expanded nicely in Eat, Pray, Love, so if you're the one that hasn't read it, you might want to get on that. Armistead Maupin's "He still needs me at 64" is a sweet Beatles-inflected counterpoint to some of the saltier adventures in his famed Tales of the City books.
Some six-word memoirs are directly related to the rest of a writers' work. V. V. Ganeshananthan's "My book title makes dating awkward" is all the more charming when you check out her debut novel Love Marriage. Want to know where Stephanie Losee picked up the subject of "He's less tall but more sane"? She co-wrote Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding - And Managing - Romance on the Job, didn't she? And Laura Fraser's popular book An Italian Affair might have something to do with "He lied, cheated, left; bestselling memoir."
On the other hand, Martha Garvey wrote My Fat Dog and My Fat Cat, cute, helpful books for pet-lovers, as well as revealing the powerful six words, "Teen homewrecker. Still miss his kid." Sex columnist Dan Savage wrote "Job requires me to contemplate cunnilingus," which we need to avoid reading on the radio, while two of his books are The Kid and The Commitment, all about marriage and parenthood.
Overall, our contributors represent a pretty diverse group. Lanford Wilson ("Bastard turned out to be straight") is a prolific playwright; Marya Hornbacher ("He punched my car. The End") writes honest memoirs about mental illness; Rebecca Woolf ("He had nothing. Gave me everything") wrote Rockabye about unplanned pregnancy and Jennifer 8. Lee ("Found myself a nerdy computer programmer") wrote The Fortune Cookie Chronicles about Chinese food.
I've always vowed to love my contributors equally, but as one of them prickly feminists, I look cynically on Neil Strauss's "How can I build trust again?" He is, after all, the author of The Game, a pick up bible suggesting that putting women down will make us drop our panties. As we approach Valentine's Day, that inane but indelible celebration of romance, I'll leave my response to six-word memoirist Judy "He cheated and then he died" McGuire. She wrote a book called How Not to Date.
by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser, February 10, 2009 12:41 PM
"Nine years stacked within my soul."
Those six words rocked my world more than any others I've heard in this wild, unwieldy, otherworldly six-word memoir journey we've been on for two-plus years now. But I'm jumping ahead.
Since we launched the six-word memoir challenge on SMITH in late 2006 and then published a book of our favorites, we've seen amazing things happen that, literally, were not quite what we were planning.
The six-word form has proved to be an unexpectedly elegant and accessible tool for self-expression and personal storytelling. The thing is now bigger than Hemingway, who legendarily was challenged in a bar bet to write a story in just six words ("For sale: baby shoes, never worn."), and certainly bigger than SMITH. From a reverend in North Carolina who preached six-word prayers, to a midwestern book blogger who created a six-word memoir meme, which still races across hundreds of thousands of personal blogs, six-word memoirs have taken on a life beyond our wildest expectations. Who knew?
But nothing has been as inspiring as the stories of six-word memoirs being taught in classrooms and after-school programs around the world. On YouTube, I stumbled upon this project from teens from the Sprout Creek Farm in Poughkeepsie, NY. (In my day, we just milked cows.)
Soon we started going to schools ourselves. We held a six-word slam in a high school in downtown NYC where scores of teens stood up without fear or self-consciousness and told stories that ranged from the super-personal ("Fat camp makes fat kids fatter") to the political ("Obama ran, so I could fly"), the universal ("Still scared about being grown up") and the intensely specific ("I think your mom is hot"). Love that. Another classroom we visited had a wall full of six-word memoirs with illustrations, including this one picture below. The young writer explained to me that her six words are about the story of her coffee jones, and downsides to her favorite barista's disappearance. (I'm going to send her a pound of the good stuff from Stumptown.)
And about that soulful nine-year-old. This spring, my nephews invited me to come speak to a couple of their classes. I spent the day back in my South Jersey hometown, walking the same halls I trotted three decades ago, and talking to a shockingly attentive bunch of kids, grades two through six, about why storytelling is awesome, and how only they can tell their own story best. I was reminded that teaching is really tough ? and just why people do it. I saw that sixth graders are intense and intelligent little beasts, and that second graders are just plain brilliant. "Tried surfing on a calm day," one little girl told me (the Buddha's got nothing on her). "Always in trouble, not really troubled." (Did he even know how genius his sentiment is?) But as we went around the room, one girl looked me in the eye and said, "Nine years stacked within my soul," I was blown away. A few weeks later, the class compiled their words from that day, as well as some new ones, into a book that's firmly in lockstep with classic zine culture. It's called Not Quite What We Were Planning: Six-Word Memoirs from Mrs. Nixon's Second-Grade Class. Receiving this, for me, was the ultimate gift of six.
by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser, February 9, 2009 10:14 AM
We've just come crashing back into New York after visiting six cities in 12 days. I'm exhausted, and all I wanted to do when I got here was cook sweet potato-kale soup (healthy!) and make out with the sidewalks (somewhat less healthy). But we were lucky enough to visit only independent bookstores in Denver, San Francisco, Portland (what's up Pooooooooooowell's!), Boston, and Chicago, and it really makes a huge difference. Plus, I was reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
along the way, and thus feeling even more pedantic than usual about shopping local.
So, as the airplanes, security checks, hotel rooms, radio interviews, morning television hostesses, cardboard coffee cups, and skipped meals blend together, it is the bookstore readings that stand out in my mind. Each had a distinct character, and a multitude of distinct characters in attendance. The more contributors took over the event, approximating a poetry slam by way of group therapy session, the better the reading got. Who wants to hear Larry and me debate the validity of hyphenates when you could be getting the origins of "Monogamists meet at sex party, marry" straight from the monogamist's mouth?
Since I can't hand over the microphone in this particular forum, here are a few of my favorite contributor stories, via email.
To explain her six-word memoir "Redeye. Him Aisle. Me Window. Love," Joanne Flynn Black wrote all six-word sentences:
Usually I sleep on redeye flights.
This time would be very different.
He was friendly, charming, and cute.
We talked from California to Jersey
Exchanged business cards. Said our goodbyes.
Eight years without seeing each other.
Always said we'd meet for coffee.
Each of us — always another relationship
When we finally did meet again,
We couldn't stand to be apart
Cross country flights to be together.
Then backpack trip around the world.
And now a sweet new baby.
To flesh out "Jim slept here. So did Carlos," Gloria Palazzo emailed from South of the Border:
So you want to know about me. Where do I begin? I am a 76-year-old lady living the good life these last 13 years in Lake Chapala, Mexico. My backstory is amazing, even to me: Carlos was my Mexican lover for about 8-1/2 years. He is 21 years younger than I am!! He is tall, dark and handsome and wanted to marry me..................we are no longer lovers. Jim came next, but that didn't last very long. He may have been too old. He is 62. If this makes you laugh, it's OK. I will laugh with you.
For the gentlemen, Scott Northrup represents with "While playing wingman, found my wife." He explains:
It was 11pm on a Thursday and I was out with a group of my friends. One of my friends kept trying to hit on a girl, but her cute friend was getting in the way. Being a good friend and wingman I stepped in to run interference by asking her friend to dance. She said no. I should have left, but for some reason I persisted. After five minutes, she said yes. Luckily things went more smoothly when I asked her to marry me five months later. If you're wondering about our friends...they're not together anymore.
And "Sirena wooed. Sailor swooned. Man overboard!" by Jim Ruland sums up the following:
I met Nuvia at a nautical bar in Los Angeles called the H.M.S Bounty. It was very crowded and there was only one open seat. I was immediately attracted to Nuvia's long, flowing hair. She was intrigued by my sailor tattoos. We hit it off, but she was from out of town and we each had places to go. We were like two sh — well, you get the idea. We traded e-mail addresses, arranged a few dates, and commenced a long distance relationship. Eventually, she lured me to San Diego, where I was stationed during my stint in the Navy 20 years ago, and we were married a few months later. Nuvia drew this image on a card she sent me on the first anniversary of our meeting. Man overboard, indeed!
Of course, it's not all hearts, flowers, rainbows, and Obama in the White House. Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak — much like life — contains its fair share of liars and cheaters, divorces and funerals. But who wants to read sad stories on a Monday morning in February?
Six-Word Memoirs on Love and